ALL THE DEAD YALE MEN. By Craig Nova. Counterpoint Press. 337 pages. $26.
Craig Nova, who can write lines such as “snow ... big flakes like soap suds, and the cool tick of them on my father’s face,” is at the top of his game as he revisits the drama of family dynamics in “All the Dead Yale Men.”
He first wrote of the Mackinnon family in 1982 in “The Good Son,” the story of Chip Mackinnon, a fighter pilot and prison camp survivor of World War II who struggled to resist his father’s plans for him: to get a law degree and marry into money or a socially prominent family.
Now, Chip’s son Frank is the focus of the story, and Frank has a daughter, Pia, in her last year at Yale and full of promise for a brilliant future. She, too, is rebelling against expectations.
The conflict is somewhat different than her grandfather’s, perhaps only because she is female. As Frank tells us: “If there was anything I craved ... it was my daughter’s approval.”
Pia has become involved with a drifter, a clever and unscrupulous character. “I underestimated him,” Frank says, “but if you don’t know all the vipers on earth, how can you recognize each one? After all, an Australian brown snake, the most poisonous on earth, looks pretty bland.”
Meanwhile, Frank, a successful prosecutor in Boston, is involved in a case he is about to lose, and he is embroiled in a sordid blackmail effort, even as he tries to rescue Pia’s bright future.
In the background, there is always his father Chip, who has been cheating him of a huge part of his inheritance for many years. Frank has an ongoing dialog in his head about confronting his father one day soon.
At one point Frank thinks, “I was just beginning to learn something about regret, just the first hint that there are things hidden away in the future and that we are trained not to think about them. ... But there it was: He got through things by keeping his mouth shut or telling lies.”
As Nova traces this tale of age-old family conflict, he employs prose that’s compelling and poignant. The male characters are finely drawn and knowable; not so the women, especially Alexandra, Frank’s wife and Pia’s mother, who seems strangely distant from it all.
Perhaps Nova is encouraging us to figure it out for ourselves.
Reviewer Frances Monaco is a writer in Charleston.