"A Gentlemen's Guide to Graceful Living"
(Reviewed by Mike Frechette JUN 16, 2008)
"What was odd to Arthur was that he felt all alone in his self-consciousness.”
The title sounds like something you might find in the self-help section, but the main character comes across as the last person who should be handing out advice. Michael Dahlie’s new novel – A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living – begins by introducing Arthur Camden, a New York City blueblood who is anything but graceful. Arthur lacks that brand of male confidence and debonair sophistication peculiar to his own social class. His grandfather had it, his father had it, and even his sons have it. But it somehow skipped Arthur, either for genetic reasons or because of a critical father, as the novel’s flashback episodes reveal. Throughout the book, the reader both pities Arthur and feels completely frustrated at such waffling insecurity in an older man who should finally have some sense of self-assurance. These very feelings make it easy to identify with a character who illustrates that human vulnerability may not end with adolescence but can haunt one throughout life.
When we meet Arthur, his unfaithful wife has recently left him to pursue other lovers, and he has just sunk the family business into bankruptcy and its ultimate dissolution. His grandfather founded an import/export business in 1908, and his own father continued to build upon its success throughout his life. Arthur, unfortunately, brought about its demise, which has classified him as an incompetent idiot among his friends and family, particularly his cousin Bill who was well-liked by Arthur’s own father.
The only thing that provides Arthur with a sense of belonging is his membership to the Hanover Street Fly Casters, an exclusive fly fishing club that has existed for generations. Membership is inherited, and this club is Arthur’s last bastion of confidence. However, even these men mock him behind his back. His only true friend in the group is Ken Fielder, who works hard to protect Arthur and introduce him to women. When Arthur violates club rules and invites a recent acquaintance – Rixa Corbet – to the club’s estate, he inadvertently burns the place down and subsequently loses his membership.
The novel is full of episodes such as this one, where we witness Arthur gracelessly repeat what seems to be a hopeless, self-defeating pattern. Yet some readers might regard these incidents of incompetence as unwitting attempts on Arthur’s part to overcome his own worst attributes. For instance, the Fly Casters estate is aptly called Maidenhead Grange, and some might interpret its destruction by Arthur as a symbolic act of aggressive male penetration. In another episode, Arthur very clumsily steals a possession of his late father’s from his cousin Bill – a rare watch called a Kolodzei Signal – that Arthur was hoping to inherit himself. This episode, while it illustrates Arthur’s lack of grace, is also his attempt to assertively reclaim what is his – not just possessions but the right to self-assurance. And at the novel’s end, Arthur is off to Martinique to visit Rixa, a pushy woman who does not see Arthur as a wimp but appreciates his meekness and sensitivity. Though Arthur never acquires the confidence of his cousin Bill, there nonetheless is hope for redemption and for a relationship that will nourish an emerging sense of self-worth.
The novel is easy to read, broken down into four digestible parts with fairly straightforward yet piercing prose. Dahlie clearly has a knack for distilling a situation and getting right to the heart of a matter. For example, in describing Arthur’s selfish and somewhat heartless ex-wife, he writes, “In her moments of compassion she could only manage to describe their marriage as a meaningful but now long-past episode in her ever-changing life. Arthur was relegated to a period in some sort of personal journey she was on, and that’s what he couldn’t bear.”
In addition to good writing, the book is also full of action, much more than this short review has time or space to summarize. And perhaps its greatest achievement is that Dahlie elicits sympathy from the reader for a character whose social class does not easily elicit such feelings. Although Arthur is a wealthy, white American male, many readers can appreciate a character who illustrates that the struggle for self-confidence is arduous and lifelong.
- Amazon readers rating: from 12 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- A Gentlemen's Guide to Graceful Living (June 2008)
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About the Author:
Michael Dahlie graduated from Colorado College in 1992 and went on to receive two master’s degrees: one in European history from the University of Wisconsin and the other in creative writing from Washington University in St. Louis.
Dahlie won the 2006 Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society's Creative Writing Contest. His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, and Mississippi Review. His novel THE GENTLEMEN'S GUIDE TO GRACEFUL LIVING won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2009.
In October 2010, Dahlie was awarded a Whiting Award, which comes with $50,000 and is based on accomplishment and promise.
He lives in New York City with his wife, Allison Lynn.