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A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism

Can a global hedge fund spy with a hankering for a haute-Manhattan lifestyle find happiness among Bolivian indigenos?

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Gabriel’s reconnaissance efforts deliver him into bed with two women: Fiona, a jaded nicotine-stained correspondent from the Wall Street Journal with a ferocious sexual appetite and Lenka, a single mother and the beautiful Bolivian spokeswoman for candidate Morales. Both women are attracted to Gabriel ostensibly for his youthful eagerness though it’s hard to discern, particularly in Lenka’s case, what they see in him.

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For his part Gabriel does his best to extract information that he can relay to his boss but his efforts are clumsy: Often he’s reduced to batting his eyelashes and begging the two women for help so that he doesn’t get fired. The trouble begins when Gabriel develops feelings for Lenka (“te amo,” he says to her in an awkwardly drawn profession of love) even as he’s trying to use her.

“A Young Man’s Guide” is meant to be a story of inner conflict: between Gabriel’s desire for meaning and his craving for wealth; between the rootless existence of a global hedge fund spy and the authentic culture of the Bolivian indigenos; between his love for Lenka and his temptation to exploit her for the information he needs to get ahead in a job he covets in spite of himself.

It’s an intriguing enough premise but it sputters on the page, leaving the novel feeling like a thinly drawn allegory. One basic problem is that the author himself is distractingly present throughout the story. The narrative is broken up with digressions on Bolivian history that are meant to evoke the country but which have the intrusive, deliberate feel of a commercial break. Elsewhere the author reproduces the four-box matrix of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (the classic game theory example about choice in conditions of uncertainty) to dramatize Gabriel’s scheming. The grid looks like scaffolding on the page: useful during the writing process but worth removing once the story had been worked out.

There are some bright spots in the writing. The author shows a knack for arresting, surprising depictions of violence. The first time Gabriel sleeps with Lenka he sees that her stomach is crisscrossed by a jagged Caesarean scar. The description does more than all the novel’s words about history and politics to dramatize Bolivia’s tenuous circumstances. In a later scene Lenka’s ex-husband uses a “rusty claw hammer” to break the back of a dead suckling pig so that it can be bent in half and stowed in the refrigerator. Gabriel, with his growing bank account, stands off to the side emasculated and in awe.

But the novel’s larger issue is that Gabriel. There is nothing heroic or noble or even particularly interesting about him; nothing that makes you hope he’ll stop lusting for the baubles of the well-heeled Manhattan life or provides any reason to believe that he will. Sometimes, maybe even often, a boy who wants a million dollars is just a boy who wants a million dollars.

Kevin Hartnett is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.

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