Lost in the Meritocracy
By Water Kirn
288 pages; Doubleday

Walter Kirn is an idealist. His keen and up-to-the-minute novels and short stories over the years have often pitted the gloriously, even delusionally well-intentioned against corrupt institutions and powers that masquerade as all that is proper and approved. Now, as he tells his own story in a tough, funny, and moving memoir, Lost in the Meritocracy, we learn that Kirn's original beleaguered innocent was himself. He examines with a kind of pained amusement his dogged Midwestern faith—in his schools, his parents, his church, and in the whole construct of morality and achievement as it was peddled to the late-20th-century American kid of a certain class and intellect. What's such great fun about the book is the intense good humor with which he looks back, and the wonderful portraits he provides of the side characters in his life: a vividly traditional older man who acted as an early mentor, a deranged sex-maniac schoolteacher, the lofty and the strange among his childhood peers—and then his soul-salting years at Princeton, where he expected enlightenment and discovered fecklessness, thievery, and self-promotion instead. There's a kind of joyous cackle behind these colorful scenes, and a sadness, too, both finally giving way to a clean-edged wisdom that infiltrates his story as he leads us toward his moral awakening. — Vince Passaro


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