NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - What if the central character of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” was an unraveling hedge-fund manager on the lam in the era of Donald Trump? Cue Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, “Lake Success.” It’s a morality tale-meets-road trip that any ardent reader – though perhaps not subject - of today’s financial headlines will appreciate.
Barry Cohen is the founder of This Side of Capital, an investment fund named after his literary idol F. Scott Fitzgerald’s debut novel. The firm operates from the gleaming new monolith overlooking Astor Place in Manhattan. Barry inhabits a spacious apartment downstairs from Rupert Murdoch. His wife, Seema, the daughter of Indian immigrants, gave up lawyering to raise their autistic son. She ticks one box on Barry’s marriage checklist: “a woman too ambitious to ever become fat.”
Shteyngart’s creation is a Frankenstein creature assembled, at least superficially, from different bits of hedge-fund humanity. Some of his traits hint at Third Point activist Dan Loeb, while Elliott Management’s Paul Singer might recognize himself in lines such as “Barry was a Republican, but he had been long gay marriage since third quarter 2014.” Like Oaktree Capital’s Howard Marks, Barry is a connoisseur – OK, more of a fetishist - of expensive watches.
And after This Side of Capital goes awry, Barry tries to ride the cryptocurrency bubble in the manner of Michael Novogratz, whom Shteyngart profiled for the New Yorker magazine in April. The investor, who was forced out of Fortress Investment Group after a $1 billion macro fund he ran racked up huge losses in 2015, clearly informed Barry’s creation.
The scandal that engulfed real-life pharmaceuticals company Valeant also makes a thinly disguised appearance. Barry is dogged by bad decisions related to an investment in a company called Valupro. He committed half of his fund’s capital to the fictional firm and became too close to its slimy chief executive, who describes his business like so: “We’re not going to cure cancer, we’re not going to save the world. We’re going to deliver value to investors like you.”
Hanging out with Wall Street types has honed Shteyngart’s knowledge of the financial industry’s unique and often grating argot. It is a place where “optics” matter, where art is an “asset class” and people “pivot” rather than move jobs. Barry even sizes up the merits of a neighboring family Seema befriends as “investment-grade.”
Shteyngart’s characters assess humans in the same coldly analytical ways that they size up deals and companies. One of Barry’s former employees even uses Excel to catalog the attributes of women he dates. Barry rationalizes the behavior: “A spreadsheet. The rap on guys in finance was all wrong. They cared too much.”
Barry’s escape from the milieu of money, on a Greyhound bus, offers his shot at redemption. He is running away from the Valupro scandal and, most of all, his son’s diagnosis with acute autism. His interactions with his less fortunate fellow travelers force him to step somewhat out of his shell and gain a semblance of perspective on his professional, legal and personal troubles.
It would an exaggeration to say that Barry achieves some sort of Damascene conversion in the back of a urine-reeking bus, alongside one-eyed Mexican laborers and aspiring African-American hoteliers. But he does become more aware of his own shortcomings. And perhaps because of limited cash funds – he eschews credit cards so as not to alert associates to his whereabouts – Barry even grows a touch sympathetic to the wealth disparities that helped propel Trump to the presidency.
The journey takes him to Richmond, then Atlanta, and a surprising dalliance with a fellow passenger in Jackson, Mississippi. He ends up in El Paso, where he finally catches up with Layla, his former girlfriend from Princeton. She guardedly lets him into her life, fully aware that Barry is a middle-aged man trying to escape demons of his own devising.
In one telling exchange, Layla asks if he really wants to make a new life with her in Texas, and why:
“He began to negotiate. ‘Because it’s real.’
‘You just got here an hour ago.’
‘But I’ve been on the road learning about America.’
‘That sounds privileged.’
‘I just want to change.’”
Barry does change, a bit. Though his marriage is over, there is no harsh comeuppance upon his return to New York. Like the bankers who never went to jail after the financial crisis, punishment is relatively mild.
He must make do with a fortune in the tens of millions rather than billions of dollars, and an upstate manse overlooking the Hudson. This Side of Capital dissolves, but he starts a new fund, Last Tycoon Capital, followed by another, Balance Wheel, a nod to his watches. Barry’s multiple acts further disprove Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum about American lives.
In the end, he finds solace as a horophile. He even makes amends with his son: “And so the great shadow lifted. And the sun rose over the estuary known as the Hudson with its flooded banks and the endangered estates perched low upon them.” What’s left undefined, despite the author’s wink to the warming planet, is whether such a satisfying outcome is available just to Barry and the privileged few, or to the rest of flawed humanity as well.
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