cover image The Final Club

The Final Club

Geoffrey Wolff / Author Knopf Publishing Group $19.95 (370p) I

The full coming-of-age of Nathaniel Clay, which occurs at the class of 1960's 20th reunion at Princeton, is the ironic theme of Wolff's emotionally and sociologically accurate novel, a work that combines nostalgia and cynicism to powerful effect. The son of a charming ne'er-do-well (reminiscent of the author's father as memorably portrayed in The Duke of Deception ), Nathaniel comes east from Seattle to enter Princeton. His father--disinherited by his icily patrician parents for marrying Nathaniel's mother, a Jew--has died, and his mother is in the throes of a mental breakdown. Befriended by his roommates, socially impeccable Pownell Hamm and Booth Tarkington Griggs, Nathaniel seems sure to be invited to join one of the college's prestigious eating clubs. When he is blackballed, he experiences the dark side of his intellectual paradise. Wolff evokes the Princeton of the '50s-- and later-- with perfection of observation and detail: it is a world of perennial adolescents who sanctimoniously invoke the moral standards of the honor code while behaving with exquisite condescension to classmates of lesser social pedigree, and who abuse alcohol as an essential element of ``the brotherhood of blotto.'' In the book's second half, a device central to the plot--an essay written by Nathaniel's son--does not ring true, but the denouement has the stomach-wrenching impact of a plunging elevator. By turns humorous and sharply poignant, the book triumphs over its inadequacies to create an unforgettable picture of a privileged time and place. (Sept.)