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Books : New York Tales: Truths, Half-Truths

Fellow Passengers: A Novel in Portraits by Louis Auchincloss (Houghton Mifflin: $18.95; 223 pages)

Though the 10 character studies here may not fit the narrowest definition of a novel, the essential ingredients are all ready and waiting for the reader to assemble them.

The narrator is Dan Ruggles, an attorney-writer whose specialty is wills and trusts, a legal practice that seems to offer the maximum of temptation combined with the maximum of opportunity, exactly as author Louis Auchincloss’ own dual career has done. An alumnus of the best schools, a benefactor of the worthiest charities, a vital link in the loftiest interlocking directorates, a confidant of the eminent and a guest of the socially impeccable, Ruggles is in all respects an Auchincloss clone. At work, he absorbs the deepest secrets of his clients and friends; at leisure, he turns them into literature.

Borrowing an epigraph from Harold Nicolson, who used the same disclaimer for “Some People,” the author cautions us that “Many of the following sketches are purely imaginary. Such truths as they may contain are only half-truths.”

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Certainly the names Auchincloss gives his characters are only half-names, which helps preserve the illusion. Though the book teems with Saltonstalls, Van Rensselaers, Rockefellers, and the like, they’ve all been tactfully rechristened to make absolute identification difficult, though by no means impossible. Similarly, the great New York museums have also had their designations switched, as have the banks, brokerage houses and legal firms, a transparent device that adds to the fun without really fooling anyone. After all, if you didn’t know or care who is in an Auchincloss book, you probably wouldn’t be reading one.

Take Leonard Armster, a suicide at the age of 24. Armster was a maverick, a newspaper reporter who never quite fit the mold, a young man whose “imagination was too vivid and his ambition too violent for him to be wholly trustworthy.” The bland tend to be suspicious of the vibrant, and Armster was a tad exuberant for the company he wished to keep.

“Most of our classmates at Yale, at least the prep school crowd, saw him as an entertaining and subtle social climber whose wit and easy adaptability with people made up in goodly measure for any deficiency in moral character, if deficiency there were.” Now, that’s the epitome of an Auchincloss sentence; establishing the narrator’s precise place in the world vis-a-vis the unfortunate Armster; simultaneously demonstrating his own high standards and his tolerance of those who do not quite meet them.

Armster’s tragic fate, like the fates of several others in this gallery, overtook him when he fell in love with an unattainable young woman. In this rarefied world, talent will take you just so far.

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Aunt Lou Haven is a courtesy aunt, a maiden lady adored by the children of her friends because she always takes their side when their parents threaten to become too stuffy. A wit and a bit of a renegade, she had been briefly engaged as a debutante, but no marriage had ensued.

“Which brings up at once, in our day, the question of her sexual preference,” a subject the reader feels sure Auchincloss would rather not discuss, even though it seems central to the story. In the end, he’s never obliged to confront it, because Aunt Lou takes to drink, a far more manageable idiosyncrasy.

Truly Vicious

While most of these characters are merely eccentric, a few are truly vicious, providing the book with genuine bite. The generally mild prose becomes corrosive when Auchincloss is writing about satanic museum curators, unprincipled adulterers or the upstarts who marry for money and then live up to the cynical aphorism by earning every penny of it. While his world may seem remote, hermetic and unabashedly precious, Old New York continues to offer the chief chronicler of its folkways all the leeway and scope he has ever needed.


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