three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
54-Sept-Oct-2011
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A-ArrivisteJames Wallenstein, a frequent contributor of essays and short stories to a number of newspapers and magazines, turns his attention to longer works with his debut novel The Arriviste.

The Story: Neil Fox is the narrator, a run-down former venture capitalist whose unyielding pursuit of wealth has cost him his family. Neil's wife has left him; his daughter stays away from him; and he mourns the premature death of his young son. Living alone in 1970s New York City, Neil is coaxed out of retirement by his new neighbor, Bud Younger, a happy, cheerful man much loved by his family. The two men's new business venture goes well at first, and Neil seems to be on the rebound. Neil starts a relationship with the mysterious Cecilia, who may also be Bud's mistress. Their business venture starts to falter, however, leading to a showdown between these two very different men.
Milkweed Editions. 328 pages. $16. ISBN: 9781571310842

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"There is something oddly elegiac about this first novel--not just because of the time it chronicles ... but also because of a sort of novel it harks back to, the quiet, troubling story told by a mature and reflective narrator looking for its meaning. ... Wallenstein is amazingly good at conveying all that matters in a look, a remark, an exchange." Ellen Akins

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While The Arriviste operates as a portrait of one man, at the same time, it operates as an allegory of our current financial collapse. ... Standing complacently on the beach while a man is drowning is the same as holding him down while he goes under." Barbara Fisher

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Neil, the narrator, is as gruff and unlikable as Bud is friendly. He's wary of Bud's intentions. ... Wallenstein keeps these questions open through to the end. That's the trick, and it's a mean one--both clever and annoying--to suspend the resolution for so long. ... The plot promises to pick up only to be perennially becalmed." Anne Trubeck

Kansas City Star 2 of 5 Stars
"Wallenstein has succeeded in making an otherwise unlikable character likable, but at length the novel falls flat largely because of Neil's lack of desire. ... That makes Neil a lot like most of us: boring." Scott Ditzler

Critical Summary

With the novel's focus on greed and wealth, comparisons--fair and unfair--to The Great Gatsby were inevitable. Critics were sharply divided over The Arriviste. There's no doubting Wallenstein's writing abilities--he has a strong attention to detail--but what to make of Neil? Some reviewers found him compelling, if off-putting, while others thought him too unmotivated and too "normal" to be easily believable. Wallenstein's attention to detail, as well as his attempt to keep the reader in suspense, makes the story a bit of a slog. The challenge here is that the novel is both the story of a passive, greedy man and an allegory of the recent financial crisis, which was caused by avarice--and indifference. Wallenstein's allegory is thematically interesting, but it may have slowed the novel's pacing.