The Man Who Was Late

by Louis Begley. Knopf. $21.00. Mr. Begley’s novel concerns a perpetual outsider, a son of Jewish refugees who achieves success and prominence as an expert in international finance. Ben has money, professional respect, numerous sexual affairs (some may be partly imaginary), and at least one correctly Bostonian friend left over from Harvard. The friend is the novel’s narrator. He has inherited the task of sorting out Ben’s private papers, and what he finds is the record of a life devoted to the pursuit of what the pursuer either did not really want or could not appreciate when it was caught. Mr. Begley’s elegant prose moves the story briskly while inviting the reader’s participation in literary reference and sophisticated international society. The ending, however, is slow to arrive, because it has been revealed at the start that Ben is dead and the reason he died becomes clear well before the author gets around to the details.