Publication Date: Jun 17, 2004
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Meritocracy 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.
Meritocracy 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.
Excerpt from Meritocracy
“Meritocracy is a dramatic, riveting novel of our times.” —Elizabeth Hardwick
“A paean to lost youth and hopes.” —Publisher’s Weekly
“A smart and heartfelt trip…Endow[s] the figure of Harry Nolan with the weight of a generation’s regret.” —Portland Phoenix
“A beautiful book: evocative and immeasurably sad.” —Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles
“Shot through with high intelligence and deep feeling, the novel perfectly balances its several tones—lyrical, ironic, and sweet, against the foreboding gravity of the Viet-Nam War. A book that delivers both intellectually and emotionally, Meritocracy is a wise and moving debut.” —Robert Ward, Author of Red Baker
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 phenomenon of the youthfulness of the characters?
2. The sixties in historical imagination are the decade of upheaval. But in Meritocracy, 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 Barack 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 different-ness 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. Meritocracy 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?