The Embezzler Summary
by Louis Auchincloss

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1,215 words.)