The Up and Comer
Howard Roughan
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Buy *The Up and Comer* online The Up and Comer
Howard Roughan
336 pages
June 2001

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I think it was Joe Kennedy who is given credit for saying, "It's not what you are, but what people think you are that counts." It is the philosophy of the businessman and businesswoman (to some degree, at least, look at all those "power ties" and "square-shouldered but still feminine" woman's suits). It is also the philosophy of the con-man and the manipulator and can be that of some of the people closest to us, unfortunately.

Curled Up With a Good BookPhilip Randall, the main character of the very good and witty suspense book The Up and Comer, has bought into Joe Kennedy's philosophy. His life is composed of Armani suits in the closet, jewelry on the wrists and a lack of true feeling for anyone around him, even his own wife. He is a young lawyer in a top Wall Street firm, the "up and comer" of the title, a bit of a misnomer as, at the start of the book, he is already just about at the top of the heap of New York society. He is already a hotshot lawyer well-liked by the head of the firm in which he works, and, even more important, he is already married to Tracy Metcalf, the daughter of the very rich Lawrence Metcalf.

As Philip says jokingly, he didn't marry for money; he married for a lot of money.

Here is a man who has been granted the gifts of a good education (Dartmouth), charm and good looks and a lot of luck. He has rather easily gained wealth, and (reasonable) status at the start of the book. I don't know how much higher he could go, but in fact, there is more downward potential than up at the start of the book and Philip proves that by falling very far.

The root cause of his eventual fall from grace in society is two-fold. The first is himself. He is a selfish, self-consumed young man who has bought into the personal philosophy expressed above. Life, for him, is about getting what you want. Manipulating people into giving it to you is part of that. It is about wearing Armani suits and drinking the best wines and using people. He is a man with such a giant ego that half would have to be cut away in order to get the remaining half to fit into the Grand Canyon. Relationships are about "tactics". In talking to his wife, for example, he states that he tried "to achieve the right measure of trustworthiness." All is pretense. There is no one, wife or friend, that he wouldn't betray to get what he wants.

And he does both, betray wife and friend, by sleeping with his friend Connor's wife, Jessica. There is no sense of remorse in any of this, nor regret. It is simply what he wants. Jessica gives him what his wife does not, passion in his lovemaking. To be fair to Philip, Jessica is as selfish as he is and, perhaps to their credit, both know it. Jessica tells Philip that, during a taxi ride with her husband, the driver offers Jessica and Connor his definition of love. Love, the taxi driver says, is caring about someone else more than yourself, and at that moment Jessica realizes she doesn't love Connor and indeed cannot love anyone. This is the flip side of the philosophy of the "Me Generation," the potential loss of being capable of finding true love with another human being.

The second cause for his eventual fall is the sudden reappearance into his life of an old school chum, Tyler Mills, a "loser" in Philip's eyes. And loser he probably is, but, unfortunately for Philip, he is also a blackmailer who knows about his love affair.

This is a little forced, this sudden reappearance of this school chum, and the author has to stretch credibility a bit to explain how it is that this relative stranger to Philip's life knows what no one else suspects, that Philip is sleeping with Jessica. To the author's credit, he pulls it off. Tyler is written as enough of an odd-thinking sociopath to permit believability in what is some very strange behavior.

The rest of the book rolls out in a way that is predictable to some degree and yet truly surprising in some aspects. The final twist at the ending did surprise me. It is all extremely well written and with a sureness and craft that belies the fact that this is Roughan's first novel. It has the feel of having been written by a confident author with many successes already behind him.

It is a book that also contains social commentary presented in a very non-obtrusive way -- non-obtrusive as the book is a true page-turner. Nothing slows the fast pace. Talks of the inherent corruption of the human soul to those who buy into the "Me First and Only" philosophy are non-existent. Nevertheless, the author does ultimately condemn it. Besides the fall of the main character, there is a subtle hint of this condemnation toward the end of the book when one of the characters (the wife of his boss) visits him and he notices that the "once heavily bejeweled hand" is now adorned with only a "simple platinum band". She stopped wearing all that jewelry, she explains, as she "found all that sparkle was getting too damn heavy."

In that we may have the true moral of the book. Perhaps it is a moral for our times as well.

© 2001 by Mary B. Stuart for Curled Up With a Good Book

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