I’ve never been to the Hamptons. Odds are, some of you haven’t, either. But there’s a peculiar language that arises amongst the people who have, a sort of playful ennui when it comes to New York’s elite sandbox. So I approached a novel about the Hamptons with a certain sense of plebian hesitation – would it matter that I didn’t know my Sag Harbor from my Water Mill? Thank god for Roger Rosenblatt, because Lapham Rising (in bookstores Feburary 10th) doesn’t require me to know anything more than his own skewed, skewering version of Hamptons life.
His dubious protagonist is Harry March, a writer who can no longer write, who lives in a decomposing little cottage on his own island in Quogue. March’s only company is the stone statue of his wife that he had commissioned after she left him, and a West Highland Terrier named Hector who’s a staunch capitalist and soldier of God, without whom the book would have almost no continuous dialogue at all. March, triumphing his hermetic life, is livid when the land directly across from his island is bought by a brainlessly wealthy nouveau riche man named Lapham (in an intentional nod to William Dean Howells' The Rise of Silas Lapham). As each floor of the sparkling monstrosity continues to rise, March loses more hold on his sanity, and the entire novel takes place over the course of the day that March has chosen to attempt to destroy Lapham in one grand gesture. He fails, of course.
The success of the novel rests on the excellent writing that happens while Rosenblatt tries to weave in some biting social commentary. Satire has always been best intended for those who know intimately the small group of people that are being crucified. I have a friend who’s a songwriter, and she likes to say that if you suspect her song is about you, it probably is. I’d hazard that the same applies to satire, and to Rosenblatt’s book. So throughout Lapham Rising, I wondered which Hamptons personalities he was lampooning. Of course, no great social critique works without applying the lessons learned to the great world, and Lapham is only meant to stand in for all manner of rampant societal greed and excess. And March, in his own mind, stands resolutely on the shore of his safe, discreet, modest little world.
Except that good commentary only takes hold in our mind when the vehicle used to distribute it is appealing, which is where the success of Lapham Rising really lies. The book, biting commentary be damned, is funny. The talking Westie, Hector, is the perfect foil to stand in for us, constantly asking March whose battle he’s trying to win and hey, what’s wrong with euphoric excess, anyway? The rambles of March’s mind are well-suited to his surroundings, with Rosenblatt describes excellently, sometimes with serious linguistic beauty. The strength and cohesion at the beginning of the novel unravel a little at the start of the book’s climax – there’s one entire scattered chapter where the same question is asked of March (“Is it you?”) and then ends with Hector trying to remember Hugh Grant’s first name (“Is it Hugh?”), a pun of such groan-worthy build-up that I actually grimaced. The last few pages, though, are masterfully framed and executed, bringing the strengths of the book together – sharp, funny, and profoundly well-written.
Ultimately, Lapham Rising isn’t commentary in the realm of A Modest Proposal. It falls somewhere in the triangle formed by John Updike, Carl Hiaasen, and John Irving – sarcastic in turns, and sentimental at others. And like any other satire, it helps to have a vague idea of the players we’re trashing. But it’s an amusing read with some excellent moments that prove Rosenblatt’s longtime mastery of the language, and the funny is funny enough to carry his readers over the murkier waters between a protagonist we’re not sure would like us and an enemy we’re all aspiring to become. After all, as Hector keeps saying, what’s not to like about Lapham?