In Stuart Nadler’s post-WWII debut novel, Wise Men, lawyer Arthur Wise becomes staggeringly wealthy after winning a class-action lawsuit against the airline industry, triggering lifelong consequences for his son, Hilly, as well as for Savannah, the young black girl Hilly loves.
Was the airline litigation based on real events?
It’s totally made up. Planes had crashed, and class action had been around before [the ’50s]. But nothing like what happens in the book actually happened. I felt comfortable inventing alternate history.
The novel has an unusual arc in that the Wises never really fall from the prominence they attain.
I was more interested morally with how to handle the responsibility of money than with the idea of what it would be like to lose it. The first scene I wrote in the book was the scene where Hilly sees Savannah walking down the street in Washington, D.C. But when I first wrote it, it was Hilly’s father that he sees. I had this image of a son walking after this incredibly rich father, who, when he catches up with him, doesn’t want anything to do with him. It was fascinating to me to have a family with wealth and to have a son feel differently about it than the father does.
The Wise family’s wealth is very tangible at the beginning of the novel, but as times goes on, the characters’ relationship to the wealth grows more distant. Was this a commentary on modern fortune making?
Hilly is disinterested in money, which is one of the things I liked most about him. He has a line at the end about going to the Clinton White House to be given a citation, which is something they give to people who are rich without being assholes about it.
Writing about race and writing about wealth are perilous topics in American fiction. Were there pitfalls you were conscious to avoid?
Oh, gosh, lots. I wanted to do the characters good service. I’m acutely aware of issues of appropriation and representation. I wrote this book because, like a lot people who write fiction, I struggle with the idea that it’s not important. When I wrote this book, the economy was in the tank, the social-political conversation was incredibly depressing, and I struggled with the idea that how I was spending my time didn’t matter. That’s where this book came from: I wanted to concern myself with big things, like race, money, and the disillusion of family. So, yes, I had a lot of anxiety. But I have a lot of anxiety about everything.