Random House: 272 pp., $25
In his previous four novels, Jonathan Dee has largely concerned himself with characters on the fringes of America's moneyed classes: the private school teacher who tutors his pampered students on the Haymarket Riots and Jacob Riis; the earnest novelist, shocked by his new editor's luxurious trappings; and perhaps most memorably, John Wheelwright, the hero of Dee's wonderful 2002 novel, "Palladio," who becomes the lackey of Mal Osborne, a legendary ad man with so much money he literally doesn't know what to do with it. All these characters -- and others in Dee's oeuvre -- are largely immune to, if not suspicious of, the lure of material wealth; indeed, the plots of those earlier novels bear out their fears. The teacher's students are narcissistic idiots. The novelist's massive advance wrecks his marriage. And Osborne? Well, let's resort to a cliché: His millions, ultimately, can't secure him the one thing he truly wants and, in fact, doom him to a kind of existential despair.
So it's both fitting and surprising that Dee has now turned his full attention to the very, very rich. His fifth novel, "The Privileges," is an odd, transfixing account of the rise and rise of a "charmed couple," Adam and Cynthia Morey, who forge their way up Manhattan's social ranks with their kids, April and Jonas, in tow. Composed in Dee's typically elegant style -- gorgeous, winding sentences in which high diction and low brush up against each other -- and structured episodically, the novel alights with the Moreys at four different points in their financial ascendance, starting with their Pittsburgh wedding, a few months after their graduation from a middling college. They are the first of their friends to marry, "the fearless ones, dismissive of warnings and permissions," and they use the occasion to divorce themselves from their working-class parents, whom they regard with adolescent disdain. Adam is "a handsome boy with a highly developed sense of charm"; Cynthia, beautiful, vain and crude, prone to statements like, "he makes me laugh and he makes me come."
Six years later, they've transformed themselves into typical Upper East Side strivers. He toils at a private equity firm, perversely repelled by his aging boss' attempts to peg him as heir apparent ("Something in Adam bristled at the thought of inheriting anything from anybody"); she clocks in at the gym and chauffeurs the kids to Dalton, increasingly despondent that "she had fallen into the underworld of women with nothing vital to do." Though Dee perfectly evokes the tedium and joy of tending to small children, the way one can get caught in "an afternoon that just seemed to refuse to pass," it can be difficult to muster sympathy for Cynthia, who "cop[s] to wanting to do some good in the world" but can think of no way to do so other than sitting on the boards of charities, though she lacks "the assets and the social position" to do this.
Luckily, Adam can supply those assets, through -- you guessed it -- insider trading, which he views not as a criminal act but as a higher calling or, at the very least, a way of circumventing the patriarchal structure that so bothers him: "It wasn't enough to trust in your future, you had to seize your future, pull it up out of the stream of time, and in doing so you separated yourself from the legions of pathetic, sullen yes-men who had faith in the world as a patrimony. . . . The noblest risks were the secret ones." Hmmmmm.
Soon the Moreys have moved from a two-bedroom overlooking an airshaft to a penthouse overlooking Hayden Planetarium. Six years later, in the novel's final section, they've entered into the freaky territory of the ultra-rich: private jet, family foundation and all. April, accordingly, has morphed into a Paris Hilton type, who considers herself "at the exact center of the . . . universe, young, hot women of privilege at the very peak of everything . . . desirable." Jonas, at the University of Chicago, tries to pass himself off as a normal middle-class junior rather than a kid whose parents rent out the entire New York Public Library for parties.
Other than Jonas, with his Alan Lomax recordings and his obsession with "originality and authenticity," the Moreys are decidedly unusual characters for Dee, who has heretofore chronicled the loftier questing of New York's intelligentsia to marvelous effect ("Palladio" and "St. Famous," which preceded it, are certainly two of the best novels of recent decades). His carefully constructed, engaging plots tend to revolve around moral or artistic crises and political awakenings, and his heroes are, to a one, defined by their restless questioning of themselves and the world around them. Cynthia and Adam, conversely, appear to be missing the gene for self-reflection. "I'm just not a stone killer like you are," one of Adam's minions tells him, "you are one of those guys, those guys who are like missing a part of their brain or something. No conscience."
It's no accident that the Moreys begin their life together in Pittsburgh, where Andrew Carnegie made his fortune, through equally dicey business practices, largely forgiven in exchange for a thousand libraries built. Adam, likewise, does have a conscience -- albeit a selective one that allows him to believe his crimes hurt no one -- and therein clearly lies his interest for Dee. "[Y]ou can't just do nothing," he tells April. "Otherwise it's like you were never here." By the end of the novel, he and Cynthia are spending as much time giving away their money as making more of it. Cynthia, her desires met, seems none the happier for it, making her not so dissimilar from Dee's previous heroes and heroines. In fact, as the novel races to its close -- the details of which are best left unrevealed -- the Moreys individually start questioning their assumptions about the world for the first time. "That's some end-times . . . ," Jonas' favorite professor -- a deliciously pretentious character -- says of the Moreys' lifestyle of excess, and he may be more right than he knows, for though Dee, intriguingly, situates the novel outside of the realm of history -- the events appear to take place in a kind of eternal present, in which Facebook and cellphones have always existed -- if one reads the pop cultural references correctly, the final section takes place in the summer of 2008, moments before the carefully built houses of the Moreys' real-life counterparts came crashing down, and with them a host of American mythologies.
Smith Rakoff is the author of the novel "A Fortunate Age."