Synopses & Reviews
is the story of a generation when it was young, caught at the moment when history arrived to exact a tragic and inevitable price. It is the end of the summer of 1966 and a small group of friends, recent Yale graduates, gather in a Maine summer cottage to say good-bye to one of their own. Harry Nolan is joining the Army and may be sent to Vietnam. Also present is Harry's beautiful young bride, Sascha.
Harry and Sascha represent to their friends the apex of their generation. Sascha has men falling for her "up and down the eastern seaboard," and Harry, a rich and fearless Californian, son of a United States senator, has his friends convinced that he will one day be president. The story proceeds from the point-of-view of one of the friends, Louie, whose unspoken love for Sascha is like a worm that works its way through the narrative, cracking apart every innocent assumption. An aura of power, earned and unearned, assumed and desired, hangs over this Ivy League world.
And it settles at last on Harry, who on this final weekend before his induction comes to understand a terrible paradox: if he's going into the Army simply to maintain his political viability, his action will dishonor his right to lead; but if he doesn't go, he will likely never have the chance. His wrestling with this paradox unleashes a spiral of events that becomes as fateful for all the characters as it is emblematic of the times they grew up in.
In one sense, Meritocracy is a novel for the Al Gores and John Kerrys and George Bushes of today's America. But in a larger sense it is a book for all those of the postwar generation who have mourned the loss of their true "best and brightest," and who regret how the life of their nation, so brightly and hopefully imagined when they were young, and now entrusted to their care, has come to be diminished.
"A sheen of nostalgia glazes this tribute to privileged college kids in the 1960s by television writer (Hill Street Blues) and film writer Lewis. Politics is the frame of reference for Lewis's Yalie protagonists, who gather in Maine at the end of the summer of 1966 to bid farewell to Harry Nolan, who is going to Vietnam as an enlisted man. There is speculation about Harry's motives: has he joined up to advance his potential political career (his father is a senator), or are his reasons more personal? Narrator Louie, who idolizes Harry and is in love from afar with Harry's gorgeous, mysterious wife, Sascha, casts the couple in a golden light ('like Indian gods both of them, like Shiva with Parvati'), while attempting to curb his resentment. The story of the idyllic weekend alternates with an older, wiser Louie's reflections on the political fate of his generation: he compares Harry to contemporaries Gore and Bush and attempts to reconcile the conflicting attractions of meritocracy and democracy. The tone shifts from elegiac to tragic when the group drives home in the fog after a late night at a bar and crashes, changing everything for Sascha and Harry. This is less a novel than a paean to lost youth and hopes, and will appeal most to Lewis's fellow Ivy League boomers. (Sept. 7) " Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
A tragic coming of age story as a group of recent Yale graduates deal with the repercussions of the Vietnam War.
About the Author
Jeffrey Lewis won two Emmys and many other honors as a writer and producer of Hill Street Blues. His "Meritocracy Quartet" is intended to chart the progress of a generation. The first book of the quartet, Meritocracy: A Love Story, won both the Independent Publishers Book Award for General Fiction and the ForeWord Book of the Year Silver Award for Fiction. He lives in Los Angeles and Castine, Maine.
Reading Group Guide
1. Unrequited love appears to be at the emotional heart of the book. It drives the narrator. Is unrequited love, in its simplicity, with its peculiar agonies, unaccompanied by courtship, quarrels or families, the purest form of romantic love? Is it naive? How does his unrequited love isolate Louie, and how does it draw him close to the others? To what extent is unrequited love a phenonenon of the youthfulness of the characters?
2. The sixties in historical imagination are the decade of upheaval. But in Meritocracy: A Love Story, there is little upheaval; instead, there is doubt, anxiety, probing. Is this a function of the story being set in 1966 instead of 1968? Is it a function of the characters' social class? Or other factors? What resemblances can be found between 1966 and now?
3. The author chooses a term, "meritocracy," from social or political science for his title. Is there irony in that? What roles do the rich and privileged play in the author's depiction of "meritocracy?" Is America today a meritocracy? Does "meritocracy" as an idea hold water?
4. The author suggests that the best of his generation were lost. What sort of "argument" is the author making here, really? Political? Poetical? Would you agree or disagree with the feeling that the leaders of the post-war generation have disappointed? In order to save those who took extreme positions of integrity, would America have been well-served, post-Vietnam, by a "truth and reconciliation" program of the sort that Nelson Mandela developed in South Africa post-apartheid?
5. Harry Nolan has very specific qualities which mark him in his friends' minds as a future leader, among them boldness, charisma, and an absence of guile. What do you make of his friends' belief in him? What do you think George Bush, or Bill Clinton, or Al Gore, or John McCain, or John Kerry, or Hillary Clinton, or Barak Obama, would make of Harry Nolan?
6. Does it appear to you, from the author's style of narration or otherwise, that the character Harry Nolan was closely modeled after an actual person? Would it make any difference to you, in terms of your feeling for the book, if he were or if he weren't?
7. Through much of Meritocracy, past and present succeed each other in alternating chapters. What effects does the alternation of chapters between past and present have on the storytelling? The alternation of chapters aside, how would you characterize the relationship between past and present in the book?
8. The book has much to say about "Ivy League culture," as least as of 1966. Do you know people who've more recently gone to Yale, Harvard or Princeton, and from what you've observed, do characterizations from the book hold true today?
9. Two of the characters are Jewish. To what extent does their Jewishness make a cultural mark of difference in the book, and to what extent do other factors, such as modest origins, scholarships, physical or social ungainliness, contribute? If the book were written about characters today, would the differentness of being Jewish have the same effect?
10. The narrator seems equally torn between love of Sascha and hero-worship of Harry. What seem to be the driving factors in Louie's hero-worship of Harry? Is homoeroticism one of them?
11. The author has said that Meritocracy: A Love Story is the first volume of a quartet. Where do you imagine the surviving characters might be today?
12. Is Adam Bloch "at fault"? If he is, what is he "at fault" for?
13. Sascha could be considered the absolutely central character in the book, the one about whom the other characters and finally the story itself revolve. To what extent does this seem true? What is it about her that most excites Louie's love? What about the other characters? In some senses, she seems quite ordinary, yet every one of the men has extraordinary feelings for her. How does that work? Do types like Sascha still exist today?
14. A few people have written that Meritocracy: A Love Story is a little like Scott Fitzgerald for a later generation. Is there any truth to that?