The Man Who Was Late

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Louis Begley is a lawyer and the author of the award-winningnovel WARTIME LIES (1991). Besides winning the 1991 PEN HemingwayAward, WARTIME LIES was also nominated for the National Book Awardand the National Book Critics Circle Award. Whereas WARTIME LIESconcerned itself with a Jewish boy who struggled to survive in Nazicontrolled Poland during World War II by pretending to be Catholic,in THE MAN WHO WAS LATE the main character, Ben, is a Jewishrefugee who comes to America after the war in hopes of finding hisplace in the world. The novel is narrated by Ben’s close friend,Jack, since Ben has committed suicide and Jack cares enough tounravel the mystery of his friend’s death. Through Jack, thereader learns that they became friends while students at Harvard. Ben was an outstanding student, but upon graduation, he was notreally sure what direction to take. He eventually joins aninternational banking firm headquartered in New York.

On the surface, it looked as if Ben had everything. He marrieda beautiful woman from a good family who had two daughters from aprevious marriage. The marriage did not work out, though, and Benbegan to drift from one affair to another. He was very successfulin international finance. Transferred to the firm’s Paris office,he fell in love with the unhappy wife of a French lawyer. Thewife, Veronique, is Jack’s cousin. (In addition to Jack’snarration, the reader becomes privy to Ben’s inner thoughts throughthe inclusion of his letters and papers, which Jack, as executor ofBen’s estate, must set in order.) The affair ended badly, and onceagain Ben felt lost and alone with the demons of his past. Ben’spast is never directly revealed, but the reader can surmise that asa Jewish survivor of World War II his memories could only bring himtorment. In the end, the life he made for himself could notwithstand the torment that he had internalized.

THE MAN WHO WAS LATE us a coolly sad and somewhat detachednovel. Begley’s polished prose is nothing if not subtle inconveying the horror that was Ben’s life. The reader never quitehears Ben’s scream, which in a way makes the tragedy all the morepoignant.