(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In a series of related but seemingly random reflections, an extremely prosperous management expert on the threshold of old age (the “night” of the novel’s title) reviews the high and low points of his life, loves, and career, pausing also to ruminate on the lives and careers of certain ancestors. On balance, he feels, his life to date has been uncommonly full and rewarding, mainly as a result of sheer luck.

Born and reared on the campus of an unnamed New England college, descended on both sides from “dynasties” long represented in the college’s faculty and administration, Hank Worthington once briefly considered an academic career of his own; also briefly, but perhaps more tellingly, he entertained hopes of becoming a writer. In the late afternoon or early evening of his life, he draws upon his long-dormant gifts as a prose stylist in an effort to explain, mainly to his own satisfaction, the lessons that he believes he has learned.

From adolescence onward, Hank Worthington has been alternately fascinated and repelled by the implied relationships between “livelihood” and “living,” between a man’s life and his career. Hank’s father, born like himself into the college community, seems never to have questioned his identification with the place, having proceeded through the academic ranks to assume the college’s presidency at a relatively early age. Hank reflects that his father’s presidency, though surely competent, was less than distinguished, and that the college’s trustees might indeed have been delivered of an onerous burden by the fire that erupted briefly in a small English hotel, killing both of Hank’s parents by asphyxiation during their scholarly vacation in the British Isles. The accident proved liberating also to young Hank, providing him with a legacy sufficient to allow him to start his own management-consulting firm.

Of particular interest to Hank, accounting for one of the novel’s longer and more detailed digressions, is the curious career of his long-lived maternal grandfather, E. Cuthbertson Dodd, known as “Cubby” during his last years. As related by his grandson, the career of E. Cuthbertson Dodd is illustrative if hardly exemplary, embracing most of the possible errors and excesses implicit in the developing discipline of psychology. Like most early psychologists, including William James, Dodd was trained as a philosopher; he was also the holder of a possibly spurious degree from a proprietary medical school. Like his son-in-law and grandson after him, Dodd had been born into the college community, as if destined for his teaching post. His career, unmarked except by mediocrity, proceeded without incident until shortly after the turn of the century, when Dodd began publishing a series of papers denouncing the work of Sigmund Freud and his followers as philosophically and scientifically unsound. Before long, recalls Hank, Dodd’s incautious denunciations had touched off a major controversy with strong overtones of anti-Semitism, deriving from the simple fact, observed by Dodd, that most early Freudians were, like Freud himself, of Jewish origin. To be sure, observes Hank, his grandfather was in all likelihood less an anti-Semite, or even a reactionary crusader, than a blundering incompetent who, quite without foresight, had stumbled into an academic battlefield. Thereafter, with the tide turned in favor of the Freudians, Dodd applied his dubious talents, with equally unforeseen and potentially disastrous results, toward the areas of human and animal experimentation. Pressured into retirement, he then spent his days investigating parapsychology and extrasensory perception; eventually venerated as the kindly, white-haired “Cubby,” he died only a few months short of his hundredth birthday, revered and mourned as a college “institution.”

No doubt forewarned by the negative example of his grandfather, Hank Worthington does not suffer fools gladly, and it is his ingrained suspicion of intellectual chicanery that finally steers him away from a writing career. Although he probably possesses the talent, Hank by his own admission lacks the temperament for such a vocation: Initially attracted to the company of writers, he soon comes to mistrust their air of intellectual superiority, particularly with regard to the liberal causes that writers...

(The entire section is 1771 words.)