The Last of the Savages
The Last of the Savages is an ambitious novel of historical sweep and manifold themes, suggestive of both F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, which addresses issues as diverse as racial guilt, class differences, sexual repression, the 1960’s, and the inescapability of the past. While greatly different in theme and scope from McInerney’s first and best- known novel, Bright Lights, Big City, his fifth novel, like the first, explores the heart and soul of a young man striving to come to terms with his place in the world.
The novel flashes between past and present as Patrick Keane narrates the history of his friendship with prep school roommate Will Savage, which begins with their meeting in 1965 and extends over thirty years. United by their shared desire to put as much distance between themselves and their family heritage as possible, the two forge an unlikely alliance. Although their time together at school spans less than two years, the attachment proves intense enough to connect their lives in most intimate ways for years to come.
Patrick almost immediately becomes entranced with Will, who so carelessly embodies all the traits he has worked so hard to try to achieve, and fascinated by his family, whom he meets on visits to Bear Track, the Savages’ Tennessee estate. Patrick even uses the diary of a Savage ancestor, which chronicles a supposed slave uprising on the family plantation, as the basis for his Ph.D. dissertation. He also develops a close relationship with Will’s father, Cordell, filling in as the “good” son that Cordell never had.
Although Patrick and Will share a desire to flee their origins and fashion lives based on a denial of their history, the past they are escaping and the visions they are pursuing are altogether different. Patrick, the overachieving son of a New England appliance salesman, is running from a middle-class background, embarrassed by the same parents who have made it possible for him to aspire to the upper echelons of society. Striving to be accepted as an authentic “preppie,” aping the dress and characteristics of those “to the manor born” in the hope that his humble origins will not betray him, Patrick desperately hopes he can avoid introducing his parents to his Ivy League classmates.
Will, on the other hand, was born into the aristocracy to which Patrick aspires, but has no interest in the traditional Ivy League education his family insists upon, reserving his passion for rhythm and blues music, and for running a “numbers” racket from their dorm room. Will goes out of his way to fly in the face of everything his family represents, cruising the Tennessee countryside in a cement mixer wearing a British soldier’s uniform, and hanging out in black “juke joints.” Harboring not only guilt for his slave-owning ancestors’ lives and his own father’s racist beliefs, he also feels responsible for the death of the younger brother who took his place at the last minute on a hunting trip that cost him his life, and later for the death of his brother Elbridge, who was driving Will’s car when local authorities ran him off the road.
Will not only endeavors to disown and escape his history, however, he engages in a vendetta against his father, who, while repudiating Will, still understands this compulsion, as he explains to Patrick, “Didn’t you sit down one day when you were a boy and disown your father in your heart?” Will entertains wild theories about Cordell’s nefarious plots and business dealings, some of which may be true, while seeking ways to wound and destroy him, including sleeping with his second wife, Cheryl. This episode, however, precipitates a reevaluation of Will’s motives and feelings toward his father, and he never reveals this betrayal, and even comes to Cordell’s aid when his empire is being threatened.
Patrick sacrifices not only his family in pursuit of his vision, but his sexuality as well. His lackluster pursuit of women, lukewarm or confused response to their advances, and continued fascination with Will all point toward a dearth of heterosexual fervor and stronger sexual feelings submerged. When Will informs Patrick that he has lost his virginity to Lollie Baker, with whom Patrick has had some abortive romantic liaisons, he “was in no way prepared to entertain the possibility that it wasn’t Will Savage I was jealous of, but Lollie Baker.” Somewhat belatedly Patrick comes to recognize his...
(The entire section is 1830 words.)