Heidi's Reviews > The Man Who Was Late

The Man Who Was Late by Louis Begley
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's review
Mar 13, 2011

did not like it
Recommended to Heidi by: I found it on my shelf.
Recommended for: My worst enemy
Read on November 01, 2009 , read count: 0

** spoiler alert ** This was, without doubt, the most annoying book I've ever tried to read. The author can write, but what he chose to write was so creepy that I only kept reading because I couldn't believe it was for real. I thought that he must have been showing us, through the characters’ words and actions, how pretentious, materialistic, shallow, condescending, and completely boring they were. And I was hoping we would soon meet a real human being who would confront these awful people with the meaninglessness of their lives and then maybe it would be a story. But I'm telling you now (I wish someone had told me), that never happens. As this book drags on, page after truly painful page . . . well, I probably read a third or a half of it, and up to then, no one said or even thought one thing that I found slightly interesting--and I am interested in almost everything except contact sports.

An arrogant privileged WASP golden boy narrates the book, and he is talking about his equally pretentious, equally elevated best friend. He is either impressed or surprised (hard to say, maybe both) that his dear friend has managed to infiltrate his ranks so successfully, considering his Jewish Eastern European background. Apparently, to people like this, being from a non-WASP, non-wealthy background makes life almost not worth living. These people might be understandable in Imperial Rome or possibly even England, when it was an Empire. However, these days, people like this are not interesting to anyone except themselves. They are too removed from modern day reality to realize that they only impress each other.

Of course, the narrator’s friend went to an Ivy League school and married a rich bitch WASP (who treated him like a manny). I can't remember if he thought he loved her or not, but I don’t think these people marry for love anyway. They were both so unattractive to me, in every way, that in my opinion they thoroughly deserved each other. The narrator talks a lot, and I mean a LOT, about how much his friend cares about every detail of his appearance (namely, his clothing); how he strives to meet extremely high standards in his dress, to pass the rigorous inspections of his equally obsessed associates, I suppose. The narrator is impressed that this WASP infiltrator is so well versed in such things.

I think the warped message of the book, if it has one, is that the narrator is telling us that his friend rose to those great heights (heights attained partially by knowing the sacred rules of WASP tailoring) but still is not happy. However, the irony is that he seems to be making the point that this guy SHOULD be happy, what with the money, the women he uses for sex but would never be seen with in public, the prestige, the impeccable connections, and of course, the super expensive wardrobe. The narrator thinks there is something mysteriously wrong with a man who is not happy with such a lifestyle. I think the friend ends up falling in love with some rich, elegant, married, French woman, for four obvious reasons (rich, elegant, married, French). His life’s purpose is obviously to get things that are out of his reach, and then he can’t figure out why that isn’t fulfilling. Of course, he’s not happy. He's a phony who has spent his life pretending to be what he is not. In the process, he never became what he could have been--a real person with an honorable heritage and real values, and maybe even a heart, some wisdom, and a sense of humor. Maybe he could have done some good things for some good people for the right reasons. Of course, the “friend” of the narrator is actually the author himself—the “friend’s” life seems to mirror the author’s own life story, and this makes it even more pathetic.

The only thing worse than reading a book about a character with no redeeming qualities, who doesn’t even have the decency to see his deficits or learn from his mistakes, is reading a book about such a character, narrated by an equally pretentious and offensive character.

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