Nelson DeMille’s The Gold Coast, a bestseller from 1990, is a lasting classic. Author of crime series thrillers and a host of other works, DeMille adds in a recent introduction that Gold Coast has been compared to The Great Gatsby. I found the comparison right on, and knowing this in advance served as a reading guide. Issues of social class drive the plot. The setting is what once was the wealthiest area of America in 1929—the Gold Coast of Long Island, New York. The time is the early 1990’s, which DeMille describes as “a time that seems almost peaceful and innocent compared to the post-9/11 world—but a time that is immediately recognizable as the calm before the storm.” The book is laced with conflict and humor.
Main character and narrator, John Sutter, lives in the guest house with his wife, Susan Stanhope Sutter, of the Long Island Stanhopes. The Stanhopes have closed the ancestral manse due to the expense of heating and cooling the fifty-room French- and Italian Renaissance-inspired monstrosity. Susan owns the more modest fifteen-room guesthouse, where the couple lives “among the ruins of a world that was once far more opulent.” The Stanhopes and others like them are the established wealthy, the bluebloods, of questionable morality and sanity. Susan’s parents have retired to Hilton Head, and her father uses John for free legal work.
The conflict begins on page one, when Frank Bellarosa, known New York mobster, greets Sutter at the local plant nursery. This powerful godfather of New York’s most powerful crime family has bought Alhambra, the Spanish-inspired mansion and estate next to the Stanhope land. Sutter is a lawyer—Harvard Law, 1969—who prides himself on his spotless moral record, and the rest of the book involves his resistance to becoming involved with Bellarosa—socially, legally, and ethically.
Another issue is Sutter’s awareness that he comes from a fine old New England family, but one who didn’t make a killing at the dawn of the industrial age and hang onto it through the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent depression. Between trips to the country club and the social engagements that Susan arranges, Sutter becomes disillusioned with the entire social maintenance/climbing scene. He ponders the emptiness of the people and activities—a midlife crisis of awareness. Actually, Sutter tells us, “This was no crisis at all. This was Revelation, Epiphany, Truth. Unfortunately, I had no idea what to do with the truth. But I was open to suggestions.”
Sutter’s acerbic wit cuts deeper and deeper as the novel progresses, with his razor-sharp observations about people, for example: “Many white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of the upper classes have the same sort of relationship with their one or two offspring as, say, a sockeye salmon has with its one or two million eggs.” Sutter says, “Susan and I were raised never to be rude to social inferiors unless they presented themselves to you as equals. Then you could massacre them.” And, “Most American men of the upper middle classes never really grow up unless they are fortunate enough to go to war or go through a bankruptcy or divorce or other major adversity.”
As Frank Bellarosa continues to stalk Sutter in efforts to draw him into doing legal work in the interest of the Bellarosa fortune, Sutter wonders, “But why me? Well, if you think about it, as he obviously had done, then it made good business sense. I mean, what a team we would make: my social graces, his charisma, my honesty, his dishonesty, my ability to manage money, his ability to steal it, my law degree, his gun.”