A distinct pleasure among the many available to readers is getting acquainted with work by a new writer. I’m using “new” here in the sense of unfamiliar. Michael Dahlie, for instance, has a new novel, The Best of Youth. I was curious about it but hadn’t read his debut, A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living. Admittedly that wouldn’t prevent me from enjoying The Best of Youth – the two books aren’t related, save for the fact they came from the same writer – but A Gentleman’s Guide has that irresistible title, and it won the PEN/Hemingway besides. One further reason: it’s a sophomore slump people discuss, not a rookie slump. The first book seemed a safe bet in that regard.
In fact the later years of Arthur Camden aren’t a safe bet at all. He gets divorced, runs the family business into the ground, and burns a house, and that’s only about the first half of the book. If that makes Arthur’s life sound frantic or harried, it isn’t exactly, not in Dahlie’s hands. Arthur is a mild man, indecisive and, at best, inoffensive. The word milquetoast sometimes comes to mind. He describes himself as “a very fatalistic man,” and concludes that “I can’t decide whether it’s a character trait or a very deep flaw. The larger events of my life all seemed to have just happened to me – I’m not sure I was actually behind any of them…” A lesser writer would struggle to bring him to life, and given his weaknesses, the reader could easily lose patience with Arthur. Dahlie avoids these pitfalls, all while keeping close tabs on Arthur’s evolving thoughts on his suddenly out-of-control life.
Arthur Camden is facing the end of his thirty-two year marriage when A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living opens. His family’s import-export business has failed. Chief among his remaining pleasures is membership in a sportsman’s club, one devoted to fishing, the Hanover Street Fly Casters. The club never has more than eleven members, and membership can only be conferred by family succession. The men (membership is, of course, all male) are so committed to the club that, Dahlie observes, “Most would rather have faced censure from the SEC or the American Board of Physicians than lose their membership to what was quickly being regarded as the most exclusive club in New York.” A friend and fellow member later summons up some of the club’s appeal by noting that it is made up of “Funny old men who like to talk about insects and what might be good to eat for lunch. There’s nothing better than that.” Yet Arthur isn’t a leader even in this small group. He wonders at times how well-liked he is by the other members, but he also counts time spent with the Fly Casters as “some of my best memories.”
If Arthur is at times a pitiable figure – and surely he is – he doesn’t tend to pity himself, not in the way it’s so easy for the reader to. He is at pains to parcel out his free time, and to decipher just how well he fits in social settings. His dating life is largely unsuccessful as well, due, we suspect to a bald lack of charisma. Yet somehow an affinity for him builds, an abiding hope for a small victory and, perhaps that momentum will accumulate from there and Arthur will grow comfortable “giving [people] a little stick,” as his son encourages him to do when confronted with ill treatment.
Dahlie’s style here is mannered and somehow elaborate, but not with showy intent. If anything, he’s hit on an ideal representation of Arthur’s character, of his bearing. For instance, when being questioned by the French police,
Arthur wasn’t sure if he was supposed to pick up the conversation at this point, especially because the inspector seemed to be looking him over more than anything else. He felt as if he had just returned from college and his father was sizing him up, looking to see if he’d grown or filled out any. Finally, Arthur decided to once again affirm his affections for the pine needle liqueur when Inspector Laurent said, “Well, I am sorry we make you do this. Once more, I trust you completely. But it is French law. And it is important case. And so we must start.
Arthur’s neuroses – another facet of his character Dahlie explores to wonderful effect – won’t allow him to take Inspector Laurent at his word. He stumbles through this encounter, and the larger problem of his time in France, much as he does every other part of his life. The result, unlikely as it sounds, is charming, even endearing at times.
It’s been said that a first novel contains everything the writer has learned up to that point in life. No doubt there is often some validity to the claim, but A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living suggests Michael Dahlie is among the exceptions. He gives us a world so whole, drawn so deliberately and with such authority, that it’s not hard to conclude he has reserves, stored away for the future. Now to see how deeply he tapped them for The Best of Youth.
– John McIntyre