on April 12, 2011
About a year ago, I read an oral history/bio of George Plimpton, George, Being George; George Plimpton's Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals--and a Few Unappreciative Observers, in which I learned about Jonathan Dee's role at the Paris Review. If Plimpton were the captain of that yacht -- and oh, what an amazing passenger list it had -- Dee was the first mate. In many references, it seemed Jonathan was always tending to someone or something in dire need: deadlines, drama, drunks, dazzling new writers, careers in decline.
After reading The Privileges, it's abundantly clear that Dee paid close attention to the circus and the circumstances while there for his ability to render upper-crust characters is pitch-perfect: the supposedly charmed world of money and manners, the emotionally fraught lives of those cloistered in penthouses and Hampton estates. And yet, even with all the unimaginable wealth, the reader always connects to these fictional folks as human beings. In part, he succeeds because the book starts with them early in their lives, marriages, and careers...so you know where they all began. Then the second part kicks in -- watching the American Dream come true, in all its hypnotic and occasionally hideous unfolding.
It's a great read, yet there's a sublime sadness at the heart of the story. Ultimately, the characters are thwarted by uncertain and insincere relationships since money and prestige comes first, people second. And because success in this Gatsby-esque Wall Street morality tale hinges upon illegal insider profit, even though you feel for the family, because their fortune has been achieved by illicit, shadowy actions there's a part of you that wants to see justice prevail, to have them caught with their hand in the till. But there's no Robin Hood here...just as there isn't in modern life. This is where Jonathan Dee boldly stands firm - no Hollywood ending, no hope for reckoning for the selfish souls squired away in corporate offices and at garden parties.
Deft in his descriptions, Dee's unsentimental ending leaves little doubt about this slice of society, which Fitzgerald knew too when he wrote: "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft, where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand." Bravo, Jonathan Dee.