A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism
by Peter Mountford
Reviewed by Jessica Loudis
Several things set Peter Mountford's impressive debut, A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism, apart from the few finance-driven novels that have emerged in the wake of the economic meltdown. For starters, the story doesn't unfold in the echo chambers of Wall Street or moneyed New England (far from it, actually; the novel takes place in La Paz, Bolivia), and our overeducated anti-hero doesn't wander blithely into the world of corporate finance. Unable to resist the allure of retiring by 40 -- he's 27 -- Gabriel de Boya knows perfectly well what he's getting himself into, and considers vanquishing guilt part of the learning curve.
Not that there's much to overcome: Mountford's protagonist has a postmodern novelist's grasp of ambiguity, and ethical choices are considered in gray scale, making him a realistic character in a surreal historical moment. A welcome contribution to what could be called banker lit, A Young Man's Guide is a quasi-Faustian parable about easy money, rational decision-making in irrational situations, and what James Wood calls "the moral alienation of greed" -- but with less gravitas and more pisco sours.
Also, it's very funny.
A Young Man's Guide, opens three years before Bear Stearns' collapse, and spans four weeks in the life of de Boya, a young business journalist-turned-undercover hedge fund analyst sent to Bolivia for political recon. Between posing as a freelancer and sleeping with a barbed and perennially naked Wall Street Journal reporter, Gabriel worries about the shelf life of his job, which he attempts to extend by trafficking in rumors about oil nationalization.
Through fortune-cookie emails to his boss in New York, Gabriel maintains the illusion that he knows what he's doing, and, equally suspiciously, that he's able to discern the economic future of a country that "openly preferred to see things as they should be, rather than as they were." Even after the election of Evo Morales, protesters gather outside his hotel on a daily basis simply to make a point, and it's not lost on Gabriel that his favorite cafe in Laz Paz is ominously named the Cafe de los Presidentes Ahorcados ("cafe of hanged presidents"). Death and revolution hang in the air, and those getting away with something know that their heads could be next on the not-always-proverbial chopping block.
As a half-Chilean, half-Russian American, Gabriel is able to move freely between the worlds of cocaine-snorting journalists and the Bolivian elite, an "amphibious" status that comes in handy when he starts dating Evo's press attache. Lenka is a single mother who bears more than a passing resemblance to his academic firebrand mother, and their relationship pits love against careerism. Gabriel's wildly inflated salary is earned through groveling for information, and while he develops genuine affection for Lenka, he's not above needling her for information -- and, when she provides it, threatening her job by putting it to use. Nor is Gabriel above lying to his mother about the nature of his employment -- he tells her he's working for an eco-friendly investment firm -- when she travels to Bolivia on assignment for the Nation. Game theory and Machiavelli are used as justification, but even in the thick of deceit, Gabriel is goofy enough to be charming, and legitimately likable as a narrator.
The plot starts to spiral when Lenka feeds Gabriel a real tip about the government's plans, setting in motion a scheme to short the market. If it succeeds, his strategy, characterized as "the dapper uncle of clubfooted larceny," will let Gabriel retire in Bolivian luxury. If it fails, he'll be unemployed and back in New York, exactly where he expected to be all along. Such is the moral calculus of a 27-year-old would-be master of the universe.
A writer less talented than Mountford might have left things here, or forced the novel into a neat morality play. Protestant ethics, however, aren't indigenous to the Wall Street or Latin America of A Young Man's Guide, and distinctions between revolutionaries and hucksters are especially slippery. Lenka turns out to be as Mephistophelean as Gabriel; Gabriel's compulsions are framed somewhat sympathetically, driven by ambition and the conspicuous consumption of successful former classmates: "Other people were addicted to gambling, work, sex, but Gabriel was mesmerized by the fluctuations in his brokerage account. It was trite and it was a waste of time and yet somehow Gabriel suspected he was not alone in this." That he's not alone is the novel's main insight, and to Mountford's credit, he explores its implications outside of a moral register. As Gabriel scrutinizes his bank account, A Young Man's Guide captures the moment in which concessions become norms without anybody noticing.