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Fire and Ice: Will’s power or wills’ power?

January 4, 2011 14 comments

The Last of the Savages, by Jay McInerney.

 I have already read several books by Jay McInerney and my favourite one is probably The Good Life. I’m fond of his stories and his style, though his novels usually concentrate on the New York upper classes. The Last of the Savages was first published in 1996.

 The narrator, Patrick Keane is interviewed by the police as his colleague Saul Felton is found dead in a sordid hotel room in the Bronx. This married man seemed to have a quiet life but had actually a secret sexual life with gay prostitutes. This event is the catalyser which brings Patrick into relating his life and his friendship with Will Savage.

We are first in 1965. Patrick Keane is a brilliant high school student who just got in a private prep school. He comes from a modest Irish family and has a scholarship. As a member of the middle class, as a Catholic, Patrick is an outsider among these WASP old American families. Will Savage, born in a rich family from Memphis, happens to be his roommate. Unexpectedly, they become close friends, though they are like fire and ice.

Will is rich, charismatic, with an aristocratic easiness in his manners. He is a tempest, full of energy. He is eccentric, loud, provocative. He is rebelling against his family and the most efficient rebellion in Memphis for a boy like him at that time is to hang out with black people. Will has also a passion, blues and soul music and wants to be a music producer. He spends most of his free time in black neighbourhoods, bars and churches to discover new musical talents. So school is definitely not his main preoccupation. He is at war with his powerful and castrating father, Cordell.

Being shy, introverted, hardworking and ambitious, Patrick is fascinated by him. Patrick’s aim in life is clear: he wants to be a WASP too. We follow his life from prep school, through Yale, Harvard Law School, his beginnings in a law firm. Patrick has no life for years, concentrated as he is to achieve his goal. He just studies and works hard, lives cheaply. He succeeds in everything he undertakes: he becomes a partner in his firm, he marries a WASP daughter, lives in an apartment on Park Avenue and has a house in Connecticut. From the beginning of the novel, we know he has reached his goal: he has turned into a typical WASP.

Will is an anomaly in his perfectly orderly life. Whenever Will condescends to call him for a meeting, he clears his schedule and runs to him. For many years, his only intimate relationships are linked to Will: his wife Taleesha, his Southern friend Lollie Baker. Patrick and Will maintain a distant but permanent friendship.

The reader also follows Will’s tormented life through its collisions with Patrick’s. He marries a black woman in Memphis, right in the middle of the civil rights fights. Jay McInerney explores the consequences of such a choice and describes the climate in the South at that time. Of course, Will abuses of drugs, is always surrounded by an eclectic fauna, it wouldn’t be the music business without that, would it? He succeeds in creating his music label but he is too impulsive, has too reckless a life to build a stable empire.

From a psychoanalytic point of view, Will is the id and Patrick the superego. Neither Will nor Patrick is a well-balanced person, in the end. Will has a power over Patrick but not enough power to divert him from the path he has chosen for himself. Both have a strong will and know what they want.  

Though the book is entitled The Last of the Savages, I thought it was more about Patrick after all. He is quiet and his desires are strongly under control. He wants to be successful in his professional and social life, whatever the cost for his happiness. We progressively learn why he is built that way, but I will not tell it here. To me, he sounds terribly empty. He reminds me of Elinor in Sense and Sensibility. He never lets his feelings rule his life. His decisions are always reasonable, weighed and appropriate. He is able to sacrifice a lot to conventions, apart from Will. He is also really lucid about his ability to live outside social rules. He could not, so he thinks he should not.

The construction of the novel isn’t innovative: a violent event leads a character into reconsidering his life. It is a first person narration, with flash backs. Patrick attempts to analyse his past and the decisions he made. Sometimes he drops a sentence on the Jenson affair, to remind the reader where the story began. I thought the strings were a little bit too visible though, contrary to Dead Babies by Martin Amis, they were not meant to be visible. I don’t like when the reader can see the craft and the work of the writer: whatever the work they put into a book, the reader should always imagine that it has been written in one long flow of words, especially when the narrator addresses directly to them.

I wasn’t thrilled by The Last of the Savages. Though Jay McInerney writes well, I thought the novel explored too many subjects and should have concentrated on one. The racial conflicts are depicted in the first part and then disappear. The show business environment is mentioned but not analysed. Will’s conflicting relationship with his father was not detailed enough. Plus, I liked neither Patrick nor Will, even if I don’t have to like the characters to enjoy a book.  I thought of Patrick as a living-dead and felt no compassion for him. That’s probably because I have difficulties to understand someone who sacrifices his happiness for social status or for money. And Will looked more like a caricature of the excesses of the 1960s-1970s. 

In my opinion, Jay McInerney has done better.

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