Recent and Indecent
by Greg Rawlings
Yes, America, something other than Harry Potter’s latest escapade has been published.
And two books especially worthy of mention are Robert Bingham’s first novel, "Lightning on the Sun," which is dazzling, and Caitlin Macy’s, "The Fundamentals of Play," which is so bad it’s almost good.
Both Bingham and Macy were Ivy Leaguers, and both chronicle the Ivy League crowd post-graduation. Bingham deals with them far afoot, geographically and morally; Macy places them primarily in New York, at the nexus of society and finance.
First for Bingham. Well, to begin with, he’s dead. Heroin overdose at 33; accidental, of course. Word is, he wasn’t a junkie, just somebody who liked to pay an expensive, early visit to Heaven from time to time. The final galleys of "Lightning" were reputedly on his desk when he died.
Another one bites the dust. I mean enough already. Folks, this kid was so good he could have been to the modern novel what Kurt Cobain was to the modern song—someone who could make edgy popular. He wrote like the great Esquire writers of the 60s and 70s, Barry Hannah, Frederick Exley, Jim Harrison—his words seem to leap off the page and pull you down into the crazed world he describes—but with a huge difference, a completely unforced touch of Fitzgerald (more the FSF of Tender is the Night than Gatsby, but I’ll take what I can get).
For those who know their society, Bingham was of the Kentucky Binghams, those grandees in Louisville who owned the Courier-Journal. We are talking serious wealth here. He did Brown and Columbia’s MFA program; he founded (and paid for) the literary journal, "Open City," which was excellent. He published a terrific collection of stories a couple years back, "Pure Slaughter Value" and had an unlimited future. Well, as we all know, nothing is so illusory as an unlimited future. Moreover, he was friends with the guys in Pavement, which until very recently was the best rock band in the world. Okay, so I’m jealous; then again, at least I’m alive.
As for the book, it’s the best first novel by an American since Michael Chabon’s "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh." There are scenes in Cambodia, where Bingham worked as a journalist for a couple of years, that recall Graham Greene, in the power of the writing and the sense of place. And there are a couple of scenes in New York that will shock even the most jaded readers. Throw in the caustic, worldly-wise dialogue, the non-stop plot (an unusual quality in a literary first novel), some unforgettably nasty characters, and you have the recipe for a classic. "Lightning" is a roller-coaster ride of suicidal melancholia and weird humor. Read it now, read it later—but surely read this book. It is very nearly the quintessence of a first novel.
This cannot be said for Macy’s bloated freshman effort, "The Fundamentals of Play." Maybe it’s because she went to an egghead Ivy and not a social one—Yale in this case but Macy’s characters, especially the computer whiz/internet pioneer Harry, and the object of everyone’s affections, Kate, come off as case studies, and drab ones at that.
The scenarios ring true, sailing along the coast of Maine in August, splashing in fountains in the Big Apple after late night parties at The Club, the awesome power of the Big Green, the prep school where all first met and which none have ever risen above, but novels are about people, preferably interesting ones, as in characters. The slightest peripheral characters in Bingham’s book (and in his earlier stories) ring truer than even the main cast in Macy’s.
Lastly, this two-headed sword of Ivy League fiction put me in mind of another trust-fund writer, who published a novel a few years back then disappeared into the world of fashion magazines (Vogue) and galas: Marina Rust. Actually a Duke-ee and so not technically an Ivy Leaguer (although Duke is a far better school than the lesser Ivies), Rust wrote a novel about her upbringing called "Gatherings," which was one of the most delicate flowers of the early 90s—understated, mysterious, strange but true—like Rust’s life. An heiress of the Marshall Field variety, her book is not as exciting as Bingham’s, but it covers much of the same ground. You can easily imagine her characters and Bingham’s skipping out early from the same soirees. It’s a shame she hasn’t followed up on it. But certainly, if tempted to read Macy’s "Fundamentals," skip it and try to find a copy of Rust’s elegant jewel of a book. You’ll be amply rewarded.