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“About Schmidt” by Louis Begley (Fawcett Books; 274 pages; $12) “Schmidt Delivered” by Louis Begley (Alfred A. Knopf; 292 pages; $25) Even after featuring Albert Schmidt in two novels, author Louis Begley has yet to grow weary of his literary creation. In fact, Begley is so fond of the retired white-shoe lawyer whom he introduced in 1996 in “About Schmidt” and returned to in his latest offering, “Schmidt Delivered,” that he is publicly speculating about some day resurrecting the beleaguered Schmidtie in a third novel. This might suggest that the Schmidt saga is unfinished. Perhaps. Yet, don’t for a second consider that the tale that Begley unfurls over the course of the two existing novels is incomplete, lacking any of the crucial elements of satisfying fiction. These two books are the real deal. Philip Roth’s “Zuckerman” novels and John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom chronicles may be longer and more sweeping in scope, presenting a wider arc of their protagonists’ lives, but Begley’s two novels, though writ not as large, share an emotional depth with these works. No one has ever accused Begley of being anything but a serious writer. His first book, the Pen Faulkner Prize-winning “Wartime Lies,” published when Begley was well into his 50s, is the tale of a young Jewish boy who escapes destruction in the Holocaust by using forged papers and passing as a Catholic. Begley’s Schmidt books are perhaps the most light-hearted of his oeuvre. I earlier suggested that they shared common ground with Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom novels. True enough. But they also put one in mind of Updike’s Bech books. Just as the Protestant Updike has taken great pleasure in concocting everymensch Henry Bech, the ebullient Jewish man of letters whose misadventures have filled three collections of short stories, the Jewish Begley has taken similar pleasure in fashioning Schmidt, the decorous, repressed WASP. Begley is not quite as larky with his presentation of Schmidt as Updike is with his treatment of Bech, but “About Schmidt” and “Schmidt Delivered” seem to be powered more by the author’s sly humor than his darker instincts. When we first meet Schmidt, in the opening pages of “About Schmidt,” he is possibly at the nadir of his existence. His beloved wife, Mary, has been dead of cancer for less than six months. To help nurse his wife through her final illness, Schmidt had taken early retirement from his law firm, Wood & King, where he specialized in representing insurance companies in their lending activities. Without an office to retreat to daily, he now finds that excess time weighs heavily on his hands. He spends hours monitoring his investments in the daily newspapers and puttering around the house and grounds of his home in Bridgehampton, on the eastern end of Long Island. Mary had inherited the large beach house from an aunt and had left it to Schmidt. He, in turn, intends to pass it on to his daughter, Charlotte. Charlotte is an only child and appears to be endowed with an abundance of the unflattering traits often ascribed to that species. She is self-centered, self-indulgent, and harbors an oversized sense of entitlement. Schmidt is not blind to Charlotte’s flaws, but he is willing to overlook them because she is his daughter, after all, and he loves her. Yet, Schmidt can’t entirely shake the feeling that Charlotte has been placed on this earth for the express purpose of testing his loyalty and patience. Charlotte’s recent announcement that she plans to marry Jon Riker, a young bankruptcy partner in her father’s former firm, had not been calculated to break Schmidt’s heart — at least Schmidt hoped not — but it had devastated him nonetheless. Riker is one of a cadre of hard-working young partners who are inexorably wresting control of Wood & King from the lawyers of Schmidt’s generation. Schmidt grudgingly admires Riker’s intellect, energy, and work ethic, but the anxious father despairs that Riker will ultimately bore his daughter because his interests seem not to extend beyond the boundaries of commerce: What did his future son-in-law think about, apart from client matters and deadlines and the ebb and tide of bankruptcy litigation (Jon’s annoying specialty, the domain of loudmouth, overweight, and overdressed lawyers, thank God Jon didn’t look or sound like them), spectator sports, and the financial aspects of existence? … What was this young man if not a nerd or — in the slang of Schmidt’s own generation, apparently coming back into use — a wonk, a wonk with pectorals? His Charlotte, his brave, wondrous Charlotte, intended to forsake all others and cleave to a wonk, a turkey, a Jew! And here we confront the skeleton in Schmidt’s closet: that he is something of a knee-jerk anti-Semite. Sure, as Begley writes, “[t]o the best of his recollection, no matter how deeply or how far back he looked, Schmidt was sure he had not once in his life stood in the way of any Jew.” And as proof of his lack of prejudice, Schmidt could point out that his best friend since college, filmmaker Gil Blackman, was Jewish. But, truth be told, Schmidt, in the depths of his heart, regards Blackman not as a Jew, but as a man who has successfully transcended his Jewishness. The smug, brittle man introduced in the opening pages of “About Schmidt” will soon embark on a journey of self-discovery and transformation. In both novels, Schmidt’s tour guide will be Carrie Gorchuck, a waitress at a local restaurant and bar. Schmidt bonds with the girl over a series of lunches and eventually falls for her. Carrie is young (younger than his daughter), exotic (of Puerto Rican descent), and as reckless as Schmidt is careful. As their relationship matures, Carrie serves as Schmidt’s savior, insisting that he appeal to his better angels, and as the bane of his existence — Carrie’s past beaus and potential new flames crop up at the most inopportune moments to inflame Schmidt’s jealous heart, to both tragic and comic effect. Their romance takes an unexpected and touching turn in “Schmidt Delivered,” when the pair make the acquaintance of an international business mogul who has designs on Carrie. Individually, “About Schmidt” and “Schmidt Delivered” are fine novels, filled with vibrant characters and engaging plot twists. Side by side, they are powerful literature.

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