The Meritocracy Quartet, by Jeffrey Lewis

Review published on April 3, 2012. Reviewed by Julian Philpot

Asked to name a series of four novels by an American writer, each set in a different decade, the obvious answer would be the Rabbit books by John Updike. The name of Jeffrey Lewis would probably not spring to mind. Yet here is a thick volume containing the four works that make up The Meritocracy Quartet. And in his foreword Lewis mentions, not Updike, but Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet as the inspiration for his title.

If you have not read Lewis’s books you may still have experienced his work. As writer (and sometime producer) for the TV series ‘Hill Street Blues’, he may not be a household name, but he can certainly spin a tale. And the Meritocracy books are well-spun tales indeed. Infused with typical American themes – Vietnam, hippy communes, TV shows, and a slightly self-conscious Jewishness – they tell of love, hate, loss and redemption.

In the first book (‘Meritocracy: A Love Story’) we see a group of friends, recent Yale graduates, gathering at a summer cottage on the Maine shore. It’s the mid-sixties; JFK and the “New Frontier” are still fresh in people’s minds. Harry is the natural leader: athletic, charming, intelligent, and newly married to the beautiful Sascha. The son of a senator, he expects to enter politics himself. To his friends he represents the peak of meritocracy – that smart people belong in government, that the nation needs the best of its youth in order to grow and prosper. But by the end of the book, Harry and Sascha are dead, and youthful friendships are strained to breaking point.

Louie, the narrator of this first book, is also the key figure in the following two – ‘The Conference of the Birds’ and ‘Theme Song for an Old Show’. When we first see him, he is still in love with Sascha, whom Harry has swept out of his reach. He accepts this almost as if it were a rule of life: the top guy gets the best girl. Another example of meritocracy, perhaps. Louie ranks himself in the group: below Harry, about the same as Teddy and Cord (both more handsome but less likely to pursue the girls), and above Bloch. Usually referred to by his surname – the only one of the group to be so treated – Adam Bloch starts from behind, and seems to be always working hard to catch up. Of this, more later.

In the second book Louie has someone new to respect. It’s the mid-seventies and Louie is sharing a New York loft with a group of “followers” led by the enigmatic Joe. Louie’s other friends don’t appear in this book, but Sascha’s sister Maisie turns up as one of the group. Once again Louie is thwarted in love; Maisie ends up with Joe. Once again there’s a death, the suicide of one of the members. Nothing is permanent.

‘Theme Song’ takes us back to Louie’s earlier years and his relationship with his father, who walked out on the family when he was young. It continues in the eighties as Louie’s TV show takes off. He gets married to a neighbour, Melissa – not without regret that he could have made a better choice – and they have children of their own. Bloch and Teddy reappear, in minor roles. Louie rebuilds the relationship with his father, who dies towards the end of the book.

Finally, ‘Adam the King’ takes the story full circle to the Maine coast of the first book. The story is focused on Adam, who has amassed a fortune from his business deals. At the start of the book he marries Maisie, who brings two adopted children with her to give him the family he craves. Adam buys up land and has a big house built there, part folly, part refuge. He is desperate for acceptance, both with the locals and with Maisie, but she is equivocal almost to the end. It’s as if Adam seeks absolution from Maisie for her sister’s death. And finally, in one act of atonement, maybe he does receive it.

The stories that make up The Meritocracy Quartet are absorbing and very readable. The life running through them never quite works out right; people are disillusioned, unfulfilled, frustrated. It’s bittersweet and beautiful in equal measure. Updike is the master, but Lewis has earned his place in the domain of contemporary American literature.

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