Sometimes he might toss in a twist or fiddle with the vermouth. But it needs to be cold, and let's not have any nonsense about vodka. He knows his ingredients, and success lies in how he puts them together. Anyone coming to "Matters of Honor" after reading one of Louis Begley's seven previous novels is going to find some familiar things. There's New York and money, a white-shoe law firm and the genteel anti-Semitism associated with it. A narrator who sits just off the main action. Poland and the Holocaust. Add a bit of Latin; add Harvard in the '50s and stir. "Matters of Honor" follows Henry, Sam and several other friends through Harvard and beyond, tracing their paths in and around the entanglements of later life, as if it were "The Group" for guys. Henry will have a career in the Paris offices of a New York law firm while Sam, who presents himself as a boy of few intellectual interests, nevertheless becomes a precociously gifted writer of fiction. His first novel appears just after graduation and is sufficiently successful to give his name a cocktail-party currency. Yet he tells us nothing about either that book or the ones that follow, beyond the fact that he expects the first one to "hurt my mother's feelings." Sam's every sentence appears designed to deflect our attention. "Don't look at me," he seems to say. "Look at my friends" - look anywhere but in the cupboard of secrets he can never quite bring himself to name, no matter how clear they become and how many decades may pass. Although the novel's opening words suggest that it will offer a retrospective understanding of its characters' lives, once "Matters of Honor" gets past those initial months at Harvard Sam's narration is purely linear, as if he has no idea the direction his story will take. As the years unspool, his account becomes increasingly flaccid, its details at times unshaped and irrelevant, however oddly punctilious: "A bond I had formed with a Japanese writer causing me to spend the winter and early spring in Kyoto, I was in rue de Tournon not more than three months a year." It's an idiosyncratic voice - though only enough to irritate, not interest. Sam presents himself as a lens on Henry's life, an invisible witness to his eventual decision to cut whatever ties the New World has given him. But that lens keeps losing its focus. We notice it more than we should, yet less than we'd need to if Sam's point of view were to become the point itself. Begley has, as always, interesting things to say about class and sex and friendship, but in "Matters of Honor" I can't help thinking that the barman's hand has slipped.