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Partners In Rhyme

The Partners, by Louis Auchincloss Houghton, Mifflin Company, 254 pps. $6.95

By Dwight Cramer

There once was a prosperous lawyer A trust-laden corporate Tom Sawyer The thrust of his life, Was not to his wife, But to law, a partner much coyer.

OKAY, YOU CAN READ a second-rate five-line limerick like this to find out about Wall St. law practice, or you can read a second-rate 254-page novel by Louis Auchincloss and be taken for the total, unabridged, ride. But you end up in much the same place. On the last page in Auchincloss's novel, the latest in a seemingly inexhaustible stream of books about New York society, the final sentence reads "He was going to have as much fun with his crazy new law firm as Annabel [his wife] had even had in bed with Tom Barnes."

But anyone who goes looking for steamy good stuff in an Auchincloss novel is bound for disappointment, no matter how promising the end sounds at first. Auchincloss tries to write novels of manners about upper-class New York: its institutions, its society, its members and its professional customs. The Partners deals particularly with professional customs, the affairs of a big downtown New York law firm, the type of organization historically known as Wall Street law factory, but which is today as often located in mid-town Manhattan as on Wall Street. It is the kind of place to which Harvard College and Law School graduates have traditionally headed.

Shepard, Putney and Cox is a high Wasp law firm, dominated, in an odd way, by Beeky Ehninger, a wealthy, well-connected robber baron descendant. Twenty-five years before, Beeky Ehninger had saved the firm by reorganizing it, and now it is facing a similar crisis. In the trauma of merging the law firm with an even bigger and more profitable factory. Auchincloss reveals the personalities of the various partners, associates, and wives. They come across as a pretty average group of people; people who may work a little harder, suffer from a few more neuroses and have a little more money than most people, but people who basically are not all that interesting. But each has an indentity, Auchincloss has not merely populated his novel with stock figures. Auchincloss is a craftsman no character's viewpoint is mangled or confused. The plot is very episodic, most of which tie together, and the writing carries the book right along, although it is sometimes cliched, sometimes bad and never enthralling. There's not much you can say about a sentence like: "And that little Pauline, swinging her hips, has more to say about that than Mummie swinging all her briefs."

AUCHINCLOSS APPEARS to harbor an ambition to be a modern-day Edith Wharton, chronicling the life of an East Coast Establishment. He fails on two accounts. He does not hate his culture enough. Perhaps he is passionately involved with his New York strata, but the passion (love/hate) does not come through in his writing in the same way that it does in Wharton's novels of that world. And the society itself has changed, disintegrated, lost its potency; it is no longer so hateable or lovable.

In an attenuated form it still exists, men still, pursue law-banking-brokerage careers downtown, children are sent off to school, women have their charities, clubs or whatever. But the Upper East Side is not the relatively coherent little social elite that New York may have had once.

And although none of Auchincloss's partners is a Jew, New York has its share of them and they are fairly important. Meritocracy has, in a word, prevailed (and, most likely, was always, an element in the New York equation). And New York has, incidentally, become less important to the country than it once was. The world's work is no longer done in the city, and the work done in Auchincloss's fictional law firm involves mostly trusts, estates, and corporate clients. It is very profitable, and it permits a group of people to lead very comfortable lives, but ultimately it is sterile, repetitious, bloodless and unimaginative.

So it is no longer so interesting. Perhaps it is still interesting to upwardly mobile mid-Western clubbies who haven't gotten the work that Atlanta or Phoenix is a better place to get rich than New York nowadays; it is still interesting to introspective neurotics who can't quite figure out all the New Yorkers he sees running around Harvard, and it is, of course, still interesting to the downwardly socially mobile offspring of those same New Yorkers.

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