Mariner Books: New York, NY, 2011. 304 pages. $15.95.
I am embarrassed to admit this, but when Peter Mountford’s debut novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, arrived in my mailbox, I picked it up with a know-it-all smirk. The book is set in La Paz, Bolivia, a city where I lived for more than five years, one that I sometimes feel oddly possessive about. So I opened the book pointedly asking what Mountford had gotten right. The answer to that meager question is simple:
The novel follows Gabriel Francisco de Boya, a young analyst for the Calloway Group, a (fictional) hedge fund that wavers somewhere between shady and outright villainous. Gabriel, because of his fluency in Spanish and racial ambiguity—his mother is a leftist Chilean who fled Pinochet, his father an out-of-the-picture Russian—has been assigned to Latin America. His first job is to uncover the plans of Bolivia’s new president, Evo Morales (very much not fictional), regarding the repatriation/nationalization of the natural gas industry. If Gabriel plays this right, both he and the Calloway Group stand to gain tremendously. Bolivia, not as much.
Mountford’s decision to straddle two worlds likely alien to many of his readers—multinational finance and Bolivian electoral politics—is risky. I may know a thing or two about the layout of uptown La Paz, but I’m hopeless when it comes to stock shorts and leveraged positions. But Mountford manages to be informative without being pedantic, and Gabriel’s financial machinations prove a tremendously effective dramatic hook. Mountford’s descriptive prose is similarly effective in rendering his setting. His Bolivia is wholly recognizable, and his narrative moves swiftly, never coming across as thinly disguised travelogue.
But what Mountford does well is a preamble to what he does exceptionally: paint a complex and surprisingly sympathetic protagonist. The macro themes of A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism—the moral fallout of our financial system, the fungibility of identity—manifest beautifully in Gabriel. He is, by and large, a tragic character. When the novel opens he’s recently quit a job as a journalist and joined Calloway, hoping that in a few short years he can amass enough money to leave the whole ethically dodgy business behind. While Gabriel recognizes that his motivations are base, that makes them no less seductive. We are seduced as well, when in a brief but electric scene Gabriel gets his first preposterously large paycheck and has a little celebration. “Later, flushed and tipsy,” Mountford writes, “he picked up his laptop, logged onto his credit card account, and erased five years of debt.”
It is, of course, no surprise that compromise begets compromise. Gabriel’s ethical quagmire is never abstract, framed always by tangible choices. That he is ostensibly under cover in Bolivia—pretending to be a freelance reporter so as to avoid alerting anyone to Calloway’s interest—is just the first of many rapidly accruing lies that he tells to the small ensemble of supporting characters, most of them strong—and strongly written—women. His mother, a fan of president Morales, thinks Gabriel is working for a fluffy fund interested in ecotourism. His boss, a socially inept wunderkind who began her professional ascent by initiating a 9/11 sell-off before the second airplane even hit, has no idea that her newest employee is withholding information from her. Lenka, Morales’ press liaison and Gabriel’s love interest, gets a more traditional betrayal when Gabriel simply cheats on her.
In the face of Gabriel’s evolving self-loathing and disfigurement (both moral and physical—owing to a mishap with some dynamite), he should by all rights come across as repulsive. But Mountford allows Gabriel’s moral compromises to accrete believably and elegantly, so that each individual step seems relatively small. He is in such control of the free indirect discourse that it’s difficult not to sympathize with Gabriel. One evening shortly after being injured during a street protest, Gabriel wanders drunkenly to the famous Iglesia San Francisco. “In the plaza,” Mountford writes, “the smell of stewing chicken intermingled with the heavy odor of frying pork and boiling corn and grilling river fish. It was revolting, delicious, and he wanted to hug someone. It was Christmas Eve!” This joyous mania devolves quickly into startling malice, and by the end of the evening Gabriel is knocking into strangers, pretending it’s accidental, muttering “Please, I’m sorry, please,” grotesquely aping the better person he should be.
While Mountford withholds nothing in his exploration of Gabriel, there are moments in A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism when he seems a bit more hesitant. A lesser writer might have used an ennobled caricature of President Morales as a moral counterpoint to the conniving Calloway Group. But here Mountford slightly overcorrects, allowing the President to loom conspicuously unseen for much of the novel. Politics in general are similarly omitted between Gabriel and Lenka. When Gabriel attends a party at Lenka’s home in the frenzied days before the election, there is a jarring lack of tension (her boss was, at the time, concluding speeches with a cry of “Death to the Yankees!”). Mountford doesn’t de-claw his characters in any other contexts, but here they seem muzzled by cheer, making Lenka’s household into the warm and welcoming place that he seems to want it to be.
When Morales does come on stage, Mountford handles it very well, giving the Bolivian President all the respect he gives his fictional characters—which is to say, a lot. Gabriel recognizes a desire to idolize Morales the way his mother does, but he is unable. This is the novel’s greatest achievement: a simultaneous embrace and rejection of nuance. Gabriel, who has rationalized his entire descent, thinks back to a time when he visited Bolivia as a student, when the world seemed suddenly crystalline and simple, and the “pressure-inducing illusion” of life in the States was revealed to him as hollow. But as Gabriel grew older he found that, “Life was, finally, too haphazard for such straightforwardness, for such clarity.”
What a miraculous thing Mountford has done. Gabriel is right on both counts. And wrong. That polarity crackles in the heart of this novel, which is neither afraid to feel deep sympathy for its tragic protagonist nor hesitant to judge him harshly.