Set in the last half of the twentieth century, years that changed America for ever,Wise Menis a sweeping story about love and regret, about the crushing weight of familial obligation, and about the difficulty of doing the right thing in an unjust world.
This extract is from the beginning of chapter two.
The first time we saw the house in Bluepoint my mother screamed. We’d parked in the driveway, the tires loud against the pebbles underneath. She stepped out of the car, looked at the house, the ocean behind it, the white gulls circling overhead. Then she edged her sunglasses down to the point of her nose and let out an astonished yelp. Her reaction delighted my father. He had one foot up on the running board of the car. The engine was still going.
“Pretty damn good, right, Ruthie?”
She turned to him, one hand over her mouth. He was beaming. He jumped off the car’s runner. “I knew you’d like it,” he said.
Bluepoint was a town on the far edge of the flexed arm of Cape Cod, a sanded dot on the map between Wellfleet and Truro. We’d driven up from Wren’s Bridge that morning, making the trip in less than six hours. The house was simple, just a small two-bedroom saltbox. The shingles were stained so that the wood looked wet. The front door was red. The grass needed cutting. There were mosquitoes. All in all, it was the sort of house we saw every day in Wren’s Bridge or New Haven, but still, as we stood on the rocky driveway, my mother yelped.
He turned to me. “What do you think?”
I shrugged. “Not bad,” I said.
“Not bad, Hilly? It’s far better than that! It’s a hell of a lot better than not bad!”
The yard was big enough for a baseball game. This was something I liked about it. The street was quiet but dusty. The air was filled with salt, and the wind had teased my hair up above my head. My father was dressed in what amounted then to his summer uniform: a gray vest, a pair of slacks, and a white oxford-cloth shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbow. Except for the vest, I was dressed in exactly the same clothes. It was the end of June 1952, six weeks after the Boston Airways case had closed for good. In a few months, I was supposed to start classes at Dartmouth, and my father was trying to groom me, or train me, or make it so that when I went out into the world with his name, I didn’t embarrass anyone. Dartmouth was something he’d arranged for me. I didn’t have anything close to the grades to get in. But still, he was famous now. He wanted his son in the Ivy League, and that’s where I was going. He’d tried to get me into Yale, to get me back to New Haven, but evidently admissions there had some standards of decency they weren’t willing to compromise.
He put his hand on my shoulder and led me to the bluffs that sat above the beach. I knew the ocean mostly from New Haven, where Long Island Sound abutted the city, everything gray and unforgiving, the horizon marked by hydroelectric plants. We stood there together for a few moments at the edge of our lawn, where the earth gave way to a slope of loose sand, and then a sharp bluff, and then the Atlantic. He pointed toward a spot down the beach where the grass had been cleared, the ground tilled up. A small white house, very much like ours, sat dappled by sun. “Robert’s going to live there,” he said. He still had his hand on my shoulder, and every few moments he muttered to me, “What do you think of this, son?” I shrugged again. I was seventeen, and I didn’t understand what it meant to own a piece of the beach, the status of it, the way it would make people think of him. If the early part of his life was a battle, this house marked his victory. He wore brow-line eyeglasses then, and I saw him take them off and fold them into his hands and wipe at his eyes.
At some point a pod of dolphins appeared on the surface of the water, their silver hides emerging in small crescent-shaped ripples. My father slowly put his eyeglasses back onto his face, and then, having straightened them, took a step toward the sea, first testing the firmness of the eroding shoreline with the toe of his loafer and then standing with his head craned forward.
“They’re not real,” he said, turning to me, grinning, and then laughing. “They can’t be, right, Hilly?”
“Why wouldn’t they be real?” I answered. “It’s the ocean, isn’t it?”
“Nah,” he said, shaking his head.
“They’re clearly real,” I said. “What’s wrong with you?”
He wasn’t listening. He went one step farther out onto the silty ledge. He was afraid the ground would give way, and he reached out for me to steady him. The sea grass came up to his knees. Each of his steps disturbed a cloud of gnats. He peered out. “Nah,” he said, turning to me. “Definitely not real.”
“Do you think somebody put fake dolphins in the sea—just for you?”
He smirked. He was putting me on. Every day was a show for him. “It’s pretty, right? I hope you like. I got it for all of us.”
By then, my attention had shifted to a small two-story garage out behind the house. It was a bright day, and I could see inside to the second floor, where a finely dressed black man was standing, watching me as I was watching him. I managed a weak wave, and after a long moment, he waved back.