Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1215
Building upon the strengths implicit in The Rector of Justin, Auchincloss in The Embezzler uses conflicting narrative voices and viewpoints to illuminate the mythical dimensions of recent American economic history. Departing from the recorded facts of the Wall Street fraud case that led directly to federal control of the American stock market, Auchincloss reinvents the case and its principal characters with credibility and skill, adding human dimension to an otherwise dry, if significant, historical event.
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The Embezzler opens with the memoirs of Guy Prime, the title character, writing during 1960 to “set the record straight.” Well into his seventies and living in self-imposed exile in Panama, Guy concedes the facts of his misdeeds but remains quite unrepentant, having paid his debt to society with a prison term; indeed, he reasons, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration could hardly wait for an excuse to enact laws already written, and Guy Prime just happened to provide that excuse.
Presumably discovered among Guy’s effects after his death in 1962, his memoirs are subsequently read and commented upon by his former wife and her current husband in the two sections that complete the novel. As in The Rector of Justin, the confrontation of conflicting testimony concerning the same events and people casts considerable doubt upon the possibility of “truth” with regard to human nature; at the end it is doubtful indeed whether any of the characters involved could ever have understood the words or motivations of the others.
Recalling his youth in New York and later at Harvard University, Guy Prime evokes a setting and atmosphere similar to those of Portrait in Brownstone. At Harvard, Guy first meets Reginald “Rex” Geer, the industrious, ambitious son of an austere New Hampshire parson. Initially drawn to each other by the proverbial attraction of opposites, the sybaritic, gregarious New Yorker and the studious, reserved New England Yankee soon become close friends. When Rex is about to drop out of Harvard for financial reasons, Guy intervenes, unseen and unsuspected, to ensure for Rex the scholarship aid that he needs. Indeed, it is Guy’s persistent meddlesome streak (reminiscent of Gussie Millinder and Ida Hartley) that will in time cause most of his problems with Rex, as with other people as well. Easygoing and affable, Guy often tries too hard to keep other people happy, little mindful that they might be happier, or better off, without his “help.”
After Harvard, both Guy Prime and Rex Geer are hired by Marcellus de Grasse, a prosperous private banker and Prime family friend to whom Guy has introduced Rex. Rex rises quickly through the firm; Guy, although moderately successful, finds the work a bit too confining for his expansive temperament and draws on family connections to found his own brokerage house, inviting Rex to join him as full partner. When Rex, true to his own character, refuses, Guy simply cannot understand Rex’s need to succeed on his own. Thereafter, the two men’s differing needs and temperaments continue to strain their friendship, even as their professional relationship grows even closer. Guy’s brokerage firm, soon prosperous, becomes a principal client of Rex’s bank.
During World War I, the two Harvard graduates again find themselves at odds: Guy, among the first to volunteer for combat, is instead assigned to a staff job, presumably because of his skill at meeting people; Rex, late to volunteer because of the pressures of his job, joins the war at the last minute but nevertheless emerges as a true hero. Thereafter, Guy envies Rex the latter’s combat experience, even as Rex remains convinced that Guy could have seen action had he so desired. During the decade to follow, the battle lines between Guy and Rex become even more sharply defined, as their respective approaches to finance come into conflict.
By Guy’s own rueful reckoning, his own decade, the broker’s decade, was that of the 1920’s, an age of deals and speculation; Rex’s decade follows, after the crash of 1929, when a banker’s conservative instincts are needed to save whatever money might be left. A born salesman and trader, Guy is both ill-prepared and temperamentally ill-suited for the retrenchment of the Depression years. Still in good financial shape himself, he moves into the 1930’s at full speed, investing in such then-risky ventures as tranquilizer pills and prefabricated housing. In order to keep his various ventures afloat, he borrows to the limit from a variety of institutions; once that limit is exceeded he becomes, in effect, the embezzler of the title, pledging securities that his firm holds in trust for various family members and for the Glenville Country Club, founded by Guy Prime himself. He intends to put the money back.
One fact upon which The Embezzler’s three narrators seem to agree is that Guy did not embark on the most reckless phase of his trading until after he discovered, or began to suspect, an affair between his wife, Angelica, and Rex Geer during 1934. Guy himself encourages Angelica to interest Rex in horseback riding as therapy for job-related stress. Whatever his suspicions may be, Guy soon begins borrowing heavily from Rex’s firm, and then from Rex himself, to cover unanticipated losses in real estate and mining ventures.
The ultimate confrontation between the two men begins during the spring of 1936, when Guy asks Rex to “cover” some embezzled bonds belonging to the Glenville Country Club; Rex, whose son is by then engaged to Guy’s daughter Evadne, agrees to do so, on condition that Guy liquidate his firm and retire from business, the better to protect trusting, unsuspecting clients. Left with little choice, Guy asks for a “reprieve” of several months to “set his affairs in order,” proceeding instead with even riskier speculations in a desperate, reckless attempt to repair the damage himself and keep his firm in business. Predictably, he fails, and Rex, also predictably, refuses to bail him out; Guy’s firm thus goes into bankruptcy, and Guy himself goes to prison, willingly and almost gleefully—he has not gone down without a fight.
A quarter of a century after the fact, Guy, Rex, and Angelica—whom Rex has married after her divorce from Guy and the subsequent death of Rex’s ailing first wife—have widely differing interpretations of what happened, why, and to whom. Both Guy and Rex feel betrayed by each other, Guy because Rex stole not only his wife but also his good name, Rex because Guy in effect “sold out” the stock market to the government, forcing the imposition of federal controls in place of the gentlemanly code of honor that had previously sufficed on Wall Street.
Angelica Hyde Prime Geer, whose memoir closes the novel, attempts to strike a balance between her husbands, seeing their conflict of wills not in absolute terms but as a clash of idiosyncrasies. She tends to favor Rex’s interpretation of events, having long since concluded that Guy is something of a mythomaniac, an incurable romantic who tends to lose contact with reality. In the end, however, it matters little who may be “right” or “wrong”; Auchincloss, through his skillful use of shifting narrative viewpoints, has illuminated an otherwise puzzling incident in recent American history, showing how hard it is to know exactly where the truth lies.