February 25, 2012
You would think we’ve had enough noise about investor fraud in the news to shy away from reading about the topic in our fiction. But this new thriller, ripped from the Bernie Madoff headlines, grabs attention that’s driven by that very familiarity. Early on, we know what’s going to happen — a Ponzi scheme exposed — but we don’t know how it’s all going to explode among the characters. That unknown, coupled with an insider’s view of Manhattan’s Upper East Side luxury culture, creates a time-ticking page-turner that unfolds Thanksgiving week, 2008.
Speaking of that insider’s view, The Darlings’ author, Cristina Alger, clocked in career time as an analyst at Goldman Sachs and an attorney at a Manhattan law firm. She was born and raised in New York City, the daughter of a major fund player who died in the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. From the novel’s opening posh benefit event to conclusive confrontations at the New York Attorney General’s office, we get savvy, realistic details from someone who knows the ropes, the blue highways, you could say, of this cut-throat and tenacious high-finance terrain.
The novel begins with Morty Reis, founder of Reis Capital Management (RCM), ending his life at the Tappan Zee Bridge. The SEC is dangerously close to discovering RCM is nothing but fairy dust. His death unleashes a monumental scandal that hurls billionaire financier Carter Darling and his family into a limelight of regulatory investigation. The Darlings live the good life on Park Avenue and in the Hamptons, thanks to the family business, the enormously successful Delphic Fund that’s one-third invested in Morty’s RCM.
The day after Morty’s death, Paul, General Counsel at Delphic and husband to Carter’s daughter Merrill, gets a visit from the SEC, represented by his longtime friend, Alexa Mason. Alexa shares evidence of RCM’s Ponzi scheme with Paul, who’s blind-sided by the information, having only worked at Delphic a mere two months. She urges her friend to separate himself from the Darlings and inform on Delphic to protect himself. Alexa also shares what she knows about RCM with her uncle, who’s a journalist. Meanwhile, Carter’s lawyer Sol Penzell creates incriminating, backdated wire transfers to set up Alexa’s boyfriend at the SEC.
Alger skillfully maneuvers a complex web of characters that includes lawyers, journalists, fund managers and politicians. Of the two Darling daughters, Merrill is the smart one with a Harvard law degree. Her sister Lily is the IT Girl, whose shopping and social skills place her firmly in New York’s elite society. They and their parents are perfectly drawn to reflect the sacrosanct, privileged Upper East Side culture, a lifestyle that comes across as all-at-once desirable and yet unpalatable for its claustrophobic social demands and extraordinary financial requirements.
As Carter’s lawyer Sol works the holiday weekend to find a pawn to save the Delphic king, Merrill loses trust in her beloved father, realizing, “Nothing we have is real.” It’s not as much an epiphany for Merrill as an acknowledgement of a buried thought, a confessional wish for simplicity denied to her by the requirements of upper echelon New York society, a million-dollar apartment mortgage and 16-hour workdays. She wonders if she and Paul would be “happier somewhere quieter, less stressful, less competitive.”
Alger knows how to write a fast pace, moving us breathlessly through the holiday week with startling discoveries and unexpected alliances. Her debut is a satisfying novel, filled with many plot twists, each one as smart and surprising as the others. The Darlings is neither great nor memorable literature; however, it’s without a doubt excellent entertainment and a fascinating showcase of New York’s financial darlings.
February 16, 2012
I picked up this novel after reading an interview with Sven Birkerts by Robert Birnbaum for The Morning News. The context of the title’s mention in the interview made the difference — Birkerts says, “My best reading experiences are always impulse grabs,” and Birnbaum replies that he discovered Justin Cartwright in that way. He mentions The Song Before It Is Sung, and I couldn’t resist checking out someone else’s impulse grab.
The Song Before It Is Sung became my own discovery of author Justin Cartwright, and the story touched a deep, thoughtful place inside me, thanks to the Rhodes Scholar protagonist, Conrad Senior. Conrad is a thinking character I couldn’t get enough of, admiring his pondering wit and stamina, especially while he gets soaked in the derision of his career-driven wife. Conrad does not earn much of a living from his free-lance writing, and he’s steeped in a project that’s failed to produce the book or film he promised to deliver to publishers and TV producers. He’s dear to my heart because he believes ideas have value in their own right. To his practical wife, Francine, Conrad is unreliable and wastes his time.
The present-day story of Francine and Conrad’s deteriorating six-year marriage runs parallel to this engaging novel’s more demanding other plotline, revealed through Conrad’s aforementioned project that so frustrates Francine: Conrad inherited boxes of letters and papers from his Oxford professor, Elya Mendel, and he’s sifting through them to find a story. Their content reveals Mendel’s friendship at Oxford University during the 1930s with the German Rhodes Scholar Axel von Gottberg. The friendship collapsed, however, when von Gottberg returned to his native land with the idealistic belief he could stop Hitler’s rise to power and restore the “good” Germany. Mendel, a Jew, believed von Gottberg to be delusional and even suspected him to be a Nazi sympathizer. He repudiated the friendship and undermined von Gottberg’s reputation among the Allies.
Justin Cartwright does an excellent job of seamlessly telling the story of the Oxford friends from a variety of sources, including the letters and what Conrad learns from the few who knew von Gottberg. He easily takes us back and forth in time, with the World War II story the darker element balanced by Conrad’s lighter albeit chaotic life of getting on without Francine. Both plotlines, however, reach an oppressive heaviness toward the end. Specifically, Conrad and Francine face a difficult decision for which there are no happy solutions without consequences. Meanwhile, we learn the unbearable details concerning von Gottberg’s brutal death that follows his participation in the historic assassination attempt on Hitler.
In the novel’s Afterword, Cartwright informs us that the Mendel-von Gottberg friendship is based on the true-to-life friendship of Isaiah Berlin and Adam von Trott. Berlin was a British philosopher and scholar, historian of ideas, essayist and political theorist. Von Trott was a Rhodes Scholar hanged for his part in the attempted assassination of Hitler in July, 1944.
The Song Before It Is Sung is an involving, unique story that explores how we deceive ourselves with false hope and ideas, how we love with blind expectation and how we misread our friends. It also explores the concept of what it means to be human. In his letter to Conrad, explaining the gift of his papers, Mendel writes, “It is true that you were not my most brilliant student, but I think, my dear boy, that you are the most human.”
February 4, 2012
The Outlaw Album is the first book I’ve read by Daniel Woodrell, recommended to me by a colleague in my book world. Woodrell has published eight novels and is best known for Winter’s Bone, which was made into an Oscar-nominated movie. Speaking of Winter’s Bone, Denise Hamilton wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, “If William Faulkner lived in the Ozark Mountains today … he might sound a lot like Daniel Woodrell.” More recent authors Woodrell might be aligned with are Carolyn Chute and Donald Ray Pollock, writers who’ve likewise pulled back the curtain on America’s rural cultures.
In Woodrell’s world in The Outlaw Album, we get Missouri’s Ozark version of Deliverance country, where “folks living hidden in the hills” function according to their own rules of family, survival and justice. While those rules in our world equate to criminal behavior, in theirs it makes sense, from burning down an outsider’s house blocking a river view to purposely swerving the car to hit a hitchhiker. It’s to Woodrell’s credit that we read with an understanding of what drives these characters into their misguided reasons. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we accept their logic, but we get it.
All you have to do is read the first story, “The Echo of Neighborly Bones,” and you’ll know what I mean. It’s about a man named Boshell who kills his neighbor to avenge the death of his wife’s beloved dog. This neighbor, Jepperson, is “an opinionated foreigner from Minnesota,” who disparages Boshell and his kind, calling them “you people.” He threatens to kill the dog, without any notion of being neighborly, because it’s going after his guinea hens. When the dog turns up dead, Boshell “kept to simple Ozark tradition and used a squirrel rifle.” He hides Jepperson’s body deep in the woods, territory once inhabited by Boshell’s family before the government annexed it for the National Forest; however, that’s after he’s kicked and stabbed Jepperson’s already dead body over and over and over again to feel better about all the things that go wrong for him.
Woodrell describes his Ozark characters as “these untamed people who shot at things to so plainly announce their sorrow.” They turn to violence for the most minor of reasons, one because a campground store owner was “cussin’ me in front of bitches.” They seek their own justice because the law “ain’t eager to come into our woods,” such as the girl who bashes her uncle’s head after he’s raped yet another Ozark tourist. Only, her uncle doesn’t die, and she becomes his cruel caretaker.
This may sound like bleak reading, but I didn’t find it to be bleak or off-putting at all. Some of the violence is difficult, but it’s tempered by Woodrell’s compassion for his characters. His knowing, sympathetic approach allows us to open ourselves to a poor, violently wired group of people who are a product of what life has given them in an isolated environment of steep hillsides, rock bluffs, thick forests and clear, rumbling rivers. Violence is not so much a choice as something they’re driven to: a viable option and their easy button.
The stories explore issues of prejudice, families with deep secrets and false heroes, frustrated love and the nature of violence bred into one’s soul. They show us that behind our densely populated urban and suburban worlds lie rural, backwoods cultures whose inhabitants deserve to be acknowledged. In the Ozarks, even if we don’t see them, they see us, “foreigners” building vacation homes and blithely bringing camping gear, canoes, swimming tubes and fishing rods into their backyards. In this beautifully written collection, one learns a pretty important rule to keep in mind – it’s best to be neighborly.