Picks and Pans Review: The Man Who Was Late

updated 03/29/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/29/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Louis Begley

On the outside, Ben, the main character of this piercing novel, is a rich international banker who easily inhabits a world of well-worn passports and well-pressed dinner jackets. But inside, the one-time Jewish refugee and former Harvard scholarship student is filled with feelings of inadequacy: He believes himself to be an imposter who can never find happiness, a man who is hopelessly "late in the major matters of existence."

His final disappointment comes when he enters into a passionate love affair with a beautiful Frenchwoman and it ends badly. Even love, he discovers, cannot save him from himself. Love is only a reminder of his own shortcomings, one so painful that it ultimately drives him down a tragic path.

Begley, a 1991 National Book Award nominee for his first novel, Wartime Lies, fully captures Ben's torment and the slow, exacting toll it takes on his soul. The novel's convoluted structure makes Begley's feat even more impressive—Ben's subtly devastating story is reconstructed by an old college friend through memories, letters and Ben's own notes. At its best Begley's powerful style is lyrical, and at its worst it is self-consciously ornate, with such phrases as "irremediable existential tardiness." Nonetheless this oddly sensual novel does not disappoint. (Knopf, $21)

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