I plan to read all twelve National Book Award Finalists from 1961--fifty years ago--before this year's finalists are announced in the fall. First up, The House of Five Talents by Louis Auchincloss.Before I get to that, however, here's the project's first big revelation. I'd naively supposed that if you were nominated for a National Book Award, your place in literary history would be secure. Not so much. A majority of the nominees from 1961 are out of print. I also turned to Goodreads to judge which of these titles are "still read," as they say. Only four of that year's nominees have been rated by more more than 100 people and four have been rated by fewer than 10. I had to add The Christening Party by Francis Steegmuller to Goodreads myself.1961 is an interesting year, as the early '60s are an interesting and misunderstood era. The late-'60s get all the credit, but the seeds of the counterculture (as Thomas Frank's books and essays have convinced me time and again) were sown much earlier. This becomes crystal clear in 1962, when both Revolutionary Road and Catch-22 are NBA finalists, but I expect to find it in 1961 as well. Just look at that year in movies, as we get ready for this year's Oscars.You have the comfortable fluff of Fanny on the one hand, and the gritty realism of The Hustler on the other. Breakfast at Tiffany's is the unsatisfying synthesis of these two currents, where the subtext is libertine but the surface--from "Moon River" to Mickey Rooney--is all schlock. Can it be any wonder that a gritty musical--West Side Story--won best picture in 1961?So if the 1961 NBA nominees are to be read as a mix of old and new, The House of Five Talents, belongs to the former. Auchincloss, who died just last year after a long career as an estate attorney during which he managed to write some 50 books, placed himself proudly in the Jamesian tradition as a chronicler of extremely well-to-do Manhattanites. The book traces three generations of the Millinder family--descendants of robber baron Julius Millinder--as told by "Aunt Gussie," an old maid and the family's de facto historian. There are houses in Newport and Bar Harbor. The is a surplus of "aquiline" noses, and every chapter holds a subtle arrangement aimed at taming a philanderer or defusing some gold digger or another. Auchincloss was never fashionable--even in 1961--which he chalked up to "class prejudice." Perhaps his most enthusiastic endorsement came from Gore Vidal, who observed, "Not since Dreiser has an American writer had so much to tell us about the role of money in our lives."He is also occasionally very funny. My favorite line in the book: "But he had, in what I now understand to have been simple self-protection, barricaded himself from early childhood behind a solid wall of asthma."Vidal related that he was shocked that any Auchincloss could ever write a book and that most academics "have no idea what a useful service he renders us by revealing and, in some ways, betraying his class.” Perhaps, but it is difficult to see how Auchincloss pushed--or was even interested in pushing--the novel of manners forward. His gesture, form, and point of view are the same as Wharton's or James'.Auchincloss was roughly the same age as J.D. Salinger, and they both died last January. But if we still find one more exhilarating than the other, it has to do (I suspect, and as is contemplated here) with one's vehement rejection of the phoniness of his class and the other's more, um, subtle dismissal. Auchincloss's critique is, in fact, as subtle as the minor, drawing room manipulations with which his Millinders steer their world. Which is to say, it's perhaps a little too tasteful for the modern reader.