It’s astounding to realize that Charles Dubow’s novel Indiscretion is the author’s debut work of fiction. Dubow writes with the flair, precision, insight, compassion, and all-embracing narrative verve of someone who has already yielded a half-dozen compelling works. Yet, this is his first novel. And it’s a marvelous, memorable one.
Like many other one-word titles, Indiscretion is a loaded term. The connotations are abundant. Indeed, this is a love story (with plenty of lust) that evolves into a tale of betrayal and broken dreams. And all along the way, its characters seduce the mind.
Indiscretion is in the tradition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and James Jones’s The Merry Month of May.
As with all the above, Indiscretion is narrated by a chronic observer—in this case, a character named Walter Gervais—who sees all the other protagonists up close and personal, but always with a discerning and somewhat detached eye.
In his childhood, Walter Gervais was the best of friends with a girl named Maddy, who has grown up to be financially independent. Maddy is now married to Harry Winslow, a novelist whose popular and critical successes are dreams come true. In the milieu of Maddy and Harry (they’re paragons of upscale Hamptons glamour, and they effortlessly cavort everywhere from Manhattan to Rome), there is a never-ending flow of witty banter, wealthy accoutrements, and sensual indulgences.
Inevitably, despite all the bulwarks in place to protect both their privileged lives and their marriage (which is, in fact, solid and authentic . . . until it isn’t), the “indiscretion” of the title occurs (more than once) and in a cascading series of dialogues, epiphanies, revelations and stunning confrontations, lives are shattered.
Dubow controls his material with the mastery of Irwin Shaw or John Cheever, when they were at their peak as New Yorker short-story writers:
In the restaurant they order a drink. “You know,” says Ned. “Women can forgive just about everything but what you did. And it makes them almost crazy when it happens to someone else because they’re so afraid of it happening to them. Ever since you showed up, all Cissy can do is spit about you and keep asking me if I’m happy with our marriage and how much she loves me. I got to tell you, hoss, I’m having the best sex I’ve had in years.” He laughs, and Harry smiles. “So who was it?” asks Ned casually, sipping his Scotch on the rocks.
Harry knows what he means. He shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “I’d rather not say.”
Narrator Walter Gervais (whose peripheral role in the beginning segues to a larger, more conflicted presence) varies the tempo of the proceedings, and intense episodes of conflict are balanced by his ruminations:
What I find so puzzling about Harry’s behavior was how natural he was about it. It was as though he was a born adulterer. It is possible that sort of thing comes more easily to some men, especially writers, actors, or spies, those who become so used to inhabiting other personas, other lives, that they lose touch with the one life that really matters.
Some men, I imagine, would have felt pangs of guilt, or at least some anxiety. They would have been scared of being caught. Their deception exposed, their home life broken upon the rack.
In such passages, Dubow’s narrative control is reminiscent of the enthralling tone and mood often sustained by W. Somerset Maugham at his best. Case in point:
Of course, it’s never anything so abstract. His betrayal was as natural as a disease, as a cancer that builds up quietly inside the body and then erupts unbidden when there is nothing else to keep it in check. And when it happened, it consumed him.
The most impressive thing about Indiscretion is that in its second half, as Harry and Maddy endure myriad psychological, emotional, and social contortions while they struggle to somehow heal their relationship, multiple layers of complexity and nuance ensure that the novel never sinks to the level of a talk-show confessional.
And though it harks back to the great storytelling gems of the past, Indiscretion is as contemporary as the latest iPad. Charles Dubow’s greatest triumph is in the way that he reinvents and reinvigorates familiar themes in a mesmerizing new way.
(M. J. Moore is completing an authorized biography of novelist James Jones.)