Jay McInerney's great American novel Last of the Savages is a moving story of an enduring friendship.
WILLIAMS Contributing Reviewer
Jay McInerney is an author who lives up to his hyperbole. This in itself is a rare feat in these days of extreme ``praise inflation. ''
McInerney's The Last of the Savages is a tour de force, one of the finest American novels in a very long time.
The tale concerns itself with the friendship between Boston-Irish Patrick Keane, who wants to rise above his petty bourgeois roots, and Will Savage, scion of the Old South, who rejects the silver spoon he was born with. The two meet at a nameless New England prep school, thrown together as roommates in the mid-1960s, ``late arrivals to the class of '67. ''
From the outset their temperaments are all but diametrically opposed. Keane dreams of conformity, Savage of rebellion. In this case opposites attract. Keane wants everything that Savage rejects. Their friendship will endure for nearly three decades.
Savage shows up at the dormitory with his collection of underground black blues albums. Early on he invites Keane back to the family's estate for Thanksgiving. Savage's father, Cordell Savage, casts Keane as a sort of proxy son, and Keane will act as go-between and unwilling intelligence agent for years to come. Cordell will help young Patrick Keane into Yale, while his son, Will Savage, will get tossed out of school.
As the two friends' paths diverge, they remain in touch. Keane shows up, at the behest of the father, or of Will's wife, at crucial times in Savage's life. Savage discovers black bluesmen in roadside juke joints, while Keane strives to accommodate his upper-crust yearnings. He majors in history; Savage majors in the excesses of the late '60s and early '70s, building his own fortune, much as his father did.
The friendship progresses through marriages, separations, traumas, sudden twists of fate, and Savage's outrageous behavior. McInerney handles the tale with deftness and depth of feeling. He's a powerful writer, but he does have weaknesses.
First, McInerney has a facility with words that sometimes overpowers what he's trying to say. The temptation to write the great sentence, create the great simile, often gets in the way of what he's trying to say, by virtue of its very panache. But this is a minor matter.
Secondly, McInerney has a tendency -- shared by many of his contemporaries -- to present description in a sort of TV shorthand. The prep school is presented as a movie set, a given (although few of us really know what happens at an upper-crust Eastern preppie factory). Yale and the Memphis estate of the Savages get the same treatment. A little more attention would go a long way toward correcting this.
Still, McInerney is one of the finest writers we have and this novel is certainly one of the best of this season.
Hart Williams is a writer who lives in Eugene, Ore.
© 1996 Hart Williams