BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : The Petty Trials and Tribulations of the Privileged Class : THE EDUCATION OF OSCAR FAIRFAX by Louis Auchincloss ; Houghton Mifflin $21.95, 225 pages


Fictional characters, according to one commonplace literary theory, are heightened versions of their creator's personality traits--projections of hidden desires, haunting fears, unspoken admirations. Stephen Dedalus bears a strong resemblance to the young James Joyce, but there are many traces of the older Joyce in Leopold Bloom, too, and--to a lesser extent--in Molly Bloom and even Buck Mulligan.

It's understandable, probably inevitable: Writers write not just to entertain readers, or to explore the world, but to explain themselves, to speculate about paths not taken, identities not assumed.

The work of Louis Auchincloss all but insists on such speculation because it takes place within such a narrow range. Most of the author's 30-odd novels--the best-known is "The Rector of Justin"--concern white, blueblood, upper-class Manhattanites, and one can't imagine being obsessed with such a constricted milieu unless it holds some personal fascination.

High society is not as interesting, in and of itself, as Auchincloss seems to believe, but in his hands, at least, it does make for good fiction. Why? Not because Auchincloss sits at Park Avenue keyholes but because, being a lawyer as well as a novelist, he is part and parcel of Park Avenue . . . and still can't quite justify it.

Take the following conversation between the eponymous narrator of "The Education of Oscar Fairfax" and the up-and-coming, exploitative novelist Danny Winslow: "I watch people and re-create them," Winslow tells Fairfax, then a law student. "You watch them because you want to become them. You're a kind of monster."

Auchincloss is both of these characters--the observer and the observed, critic and participant--and the uneasiness of that double, irreconcilable identity is evident. He is Horatio as well as Hamlet, Frankenstein as well as the monster, and unable to bear witness for or against his own class, his own existence.

Auchincloss' model for this novel, obviously, is the classic memoir "The Education of Henry Adams," in which the scion of an exceptionally famous, wealthy and politically important family attempts to come to terms with his not-so-accomplished life.

On one level, Auchincloss' choice of paradigm is shrewd, for it implies a self-knowledge in Fairfax that he doesn't otherwise exhibit: Fairfax often quotes Adams' writing, and evidently aspires to be his modern counterpart. On another level, though, the comparison rings false, for Fairfax, unlike his factual literary predecessor, is content to remain in life's cultural shallows.

Fairfax, for one thing, takes privilege for granted. But he doesn't hesitate before attempting to shape others to fit his often trifling existence.

Having come across an intelligent adolescent, Max Griswold, Fairfax thinks little of paying him to entertain his son at the family's summer home in Maine, then for his education at Yale and Yale Law--all the while pretending to himself that Max is an unencumbered free agent, that he wouldn't feel obliged to join his patron's society law firm. Max eventually becomes a partner in Fairfax's firm and in the 1980s takes it into the very lucrative, mergers- and-acquisitions practice of the '80s, which Fairfax initially purported to disdain; only grudgingly and obliquely does Fairfax admit that he has used Max, has played the role of puppeteer.

Fairfax even seems to enjoy being called an "opportunist" by his goddaughter, who at one point considers dropping out of the Social Register. "Don't be the kind of ass who bleats, 'I want to make it on my own' or 'I want to be loved for myself,' " Fairfax advises her. "None of us knows just why we get ahead or for just what we are loved. We might be humiliated to learn! The point is to get ahead. And to be loved."

Here, too, Fairfax deliberately blinds himself to causation, unwilling even to consider that he might be in the right place for the wrong reasons, that his success is based on others' work.

Should such a man be admired? Auchincloss seems unprepared to make that judgment, to this novel's detriment. A major theme of "The Education of Henry Adams" is the weight of the past, and the author's sense that he can't live up to it; in "The Education of Oscar Fairfax" Auchincloss apparently wants to echo that theme, but Fairfax's familial history doesn't seem particularly significant, nor exceptionally difficult to surpass.

Fairfax's "Education," essentially a collection of linked short stories, takes place between 1908 and 1975, and the passage it chronicles is none too difficult. Some of these stories do reverberate: the attempt by his grandfather, an important New York City cleric, to build a cathedral (again, shades of Adams); Fairfax's broad-minded boyhood defense of a harmless homosexual teacher.

Others, though, seem thoroughly inconsequential, purely confessional, such as Fairfax's account of a short-lived, disillusioning affair with a minor princess, or the ethical compunction that threaten his son's brilliant career in tax law.

Fairfax, in short, often seems unable to distinguish between the sublime and the ridiculous, being as concerned with Max's ability to get into Skull and Bones at Yale as the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan.

Does Auchincloss bring up this last topic to provide Fairfax's life with a gravitas it otherwise lacks? Perhaps--but the effect is to render Fairfax even more weightless, to demonstrate the pettiness of most of the narrator's preoccupations.

Were Henry Adams given the chance to pass judgment on Oscar Fairfax, he might not regard him as a nightmare come to life, but he'd surely be appalled at the depths to which the nation's ruling class--his class--has fallen.

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