For a brief period in the mid-2000s, every Ivy League graduate thinking about what to do with his life had to consider the possibility, at least for a moment, that if he went to work for a hedge fund he might retire rich before he was even old enough to run for president. The seduction began to wane in 2008 when Wall Street collapsed, but the aura of that brief, bountiful era lives on in Peter Mountford’s new novel A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism. The book is an inadvertent reminder that while accounting tricks and fabricated debt instruments might have been enough to harvest billions, there are no similar shortcuts to writing good fiction.
The story is set in La Paz, Bolivia where young Turk Gabriel de Boya has been sent on assignment by the Calloway Group, a Manhattan hedge fund. It is late 2005 and Gabriel arrives in the homestretch of the presidential election that will make Evo Morales the first indigenous president of Bolivia. The facts of the campaign are true to life: Morales has whipped up broad popular support with leftist rhetoric that includes a promise to nationalize Bolivia’s natural gas operations. Gabriel’s task is to sleuth out the details of Morales’ plan so that back in New York his Master-of-the-Universe boss Priya can front-run the market and make a killing.
This is Gabriel’s first assignment for Calloway and he’s not very good at it. Only a few months earlier he’d been an irrelevant reporter at an online financial newspaper, watching jealously as his classmates from Brown raked in millions on Wall Street and lived like kings in Manhattan while he shoehorned himself into a cramped studio apartment. Gabriel hates the side of himself that lusts after wealth; he knows that his mother – a Chilean émigré who teaches at Pomona College and writes for The Nation – wouldn’t approve, but he can’t help himself.
Gabriel gets his shot when he lucks into the job at Calloway. The starting salary is $20,000 a month and Gabriel is beside himself when his first paycheck lands in his bank account. He knows that he stands to make many times that if he delivers in Bolivia, and that he’ll get canned if he doesn’t. When he steps off the plane in Bolivia he also knows that he’s in over his head, and he’s prepared to do just about anything to secure his fortune.
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.
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.