A comic investment in a bear-market economy

THREE DOLLARS By Elliot Perlman MacMurray & Beck 358 pp., $22

"Three dollars" doesn't sound like much, but Elliot Perlman's new novel is priceless. Already a bestseller in his native Australia, this is Perlman's first book, and with an initial public offering like this, it looks like the beginning of a considerable literary fortune.

Eddie Harnovey, the ironic narrator of this charming story, has a keen eye for patterns in his life - personal and economic - and most of them aren't good. "Every nine and a half years I see Amanda," he begins. "Most recently was today. I had three dollars."

In a voice encumbered with self-doubt and enlivened with wit, Eddie traces his life and his finances through these periodic encounters from childhood to middle age.

He first met Amanda in grade school. She had the long blond hair "of a model in a shampoo commercial ... with a gleam enough to reflect whatever an admirer might want to see in it." Her parents were rocketing into the upper class and quickly put an end to playtime with common little Eddie, but she remained imprinted on his mind as the quintessential girl.

Meanwhile, Eddie's cuckolded uncle moves into his bedroom to die of despair. Pretending to be asleep, the little boy listens every night as his uncle bemoans the treachery of women and business.

Impressed by the success of Amanda's father and scarred by warnings of his uncle, Eddie pursues what he hopes will be a financially secure career in chemical engineering. His real interest, however, becomes a "romantic headstrong gypsy-girl" named Tanya, who's "guided by the light of the tyranny of the new."

"You can dress in black, waving your arms around at parties for only so long," he admits, but he's desperate to impress this cerebral artist. "I took to wearing eyeliner at certain parties in the hope that it would make people suspect that I was bisexual and interesting."

It's a shaky relationship - interrupted by Eddie's fantasies about ideal Amanda and Tanya's dalliance with more sophisticated men - but eventually they settle down and live a model middle-class life. Eddie gets a dull job with the Federal Department of Environment, and Tanya works as an adjunct professor.

Around them, however, the new world order is conspiring to make middle-class life far more precarious. It's a faint smell at first, but slowly the acrid aroma of financial anxiety spreads. Eddie's father finds himself let go a few years before retirement. Budget cuts phase out Tanya's job. And Eddie finds himself asked to write a mission statement that's really a prelude to slashing his position. ("I don't even know what an emission statement is," he protests.)

Everywhere, it seems, the rule of the free marketplace threatens to dissolve relationships and responsibilities between people, replacing them with the benefits of cheaper products. With admirable subtlety, Perlman satirizes a world in which suburban paradise and homelessness are just a single missed payment apart.

Eddie can't help but notice that new market efficiencies are always touted by extravagantly paid executives who produce nothing. His inane session with the corporate career counselor is so funny it could cheer up even the newly unemployed.

Through it all, despite his own anxieties and doubts, Eddie's reflex to help and encourage others never flags. His wife, his friends, an alcoholic on the street, all are benefactors of this humble, funny man. In the end, it's this natural compassion that proves his greatest investment. Sitting in the dark living room with his wife and daughter as the sun rises, Eddie knows what's really valuable in his life. And dollars have nothing to do with it.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com

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