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The great 'George Apley'

The Late George Apley
By John P. Marquand
Back Bay, 368 pp., paperback, $14.95

George Apley, we are told, was born on the steeper part of Mount Vernon Street in 1866 and died a short distance away, on the water side of Beacon Street, in 1933. His life, then, was severely circumscribed, not unlike that of the koala bear, which has been known to travel a mere few hundred yards in the course of its life, working its way through the leaves of a eucalyptus grove.

Apley is echt Boston Brahmin. His uncle William prides himself on taking the trolley, buys one new suit a year, and donates a raft of Rembrandts to the art museum. His grandfather, who built a mansion in the South End, sees a man in shirtsleeves on the steps of his house across the street and is so shocked at this breach of dress that he sells his house the next day and moves to the Back Bay.

Apley's emotional center is the family estate in Milton. He stays at the ''Boston" hotels in New York, London, and the right bank of the Seine. He writes his son when he enters Harvard that joining the right club is paramount: ''I don't know what I should have done in life without the Club."

There are two iconic books about Boston, and this is one of them. ''The Late George Apley" and ''The Last Hurrah" paint memorable portraits of two figures from the city's dominant tribes, the Brahmins and the Irish. ''Apley," written by John P. Marquand in 1937, offers the definitive look at the high WASP in decline. ''Hurrah," written by Edwin O'Connor in 1956, does much the same for the fabled Boston Irish politician. Both characters are now dated. The world of George Apley is ancient history, as is the domain of O'Connor's rogue mayor, Frank Skeffington.

''Apley" was reissued in paperback in March by Back Bay Books. What a grand idea. Many have known of the book since childhood yet have never read it on the assumption that it is quaint and stilted. Wrong. It is a great read, not only for those who want to understand old Boston, but for anyone who appreciates good writing. It is a mystery why Marquand has been so out of vogue. ''Apley" won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, in 1938, for good reason.

Marquand tells the life of George Apley through the letters that Apley's father wrote to him while he was growing up and then through those of Apley himself to his children and friends. The narrator, a distinguished writer and friend of Apley's, is asked by Apley's son after his father's death to re-create the true life of the father beyond the air-brushed funeral homilies.

The result is a masterly mix of narrative commentary and illuminating missives. Marquand writes in clean, penetrating understatement and seamless discretion, each essential to the success of the effort, which, by its end, is powerful and moving. ''The Late George Apley" is an uncommonly good book of manners, what the pointy-heads call a Gesellschaftsroman.

Apley grows up in sober superiority, marries the right woman, joins the family law firm. He fights creation of Storrow Drive and the Charles River Basin. He is a snob, good-hearted, loyal, and generous to friends ruined in the stock market crash of 1929.

It is only late in life that he discovers he is a prisoner of his class, that there is a big, rich world beyond the narrow strictures of the life that was defined for him before his birth. He grows flummoxed and wistful as the rules change. His son decamps from Boston to New York and marries a divorce. He reads ''Lady Chatterley's Lover," careful to keep the bombshell of a book from his wife, and grudgingly concludes it's a work of art.

As he nears his deathbed, he mourns the meager meaning of his life: ''Everything I have done has amounted almost to nothing," he writes his son. He realizes that in the course of meeting his endless obligations as an Apley, he has missed the joy of it all: ''I have not had a very good time in doing it," he concedes. He acknowledges the chains of his station: ''Memory and tradition are the tyrants of our environment."

And then he writes this: ''I have always been faced from childhood by the obligation of convention, and all of these conventions have been made by others, formed from the fabric of the past. . . . They were designed to promote stability and inheritance. Perhaps they have gone a little bit too far."

Sam Allis is a member of the Globe staff.

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