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BOOKS BIG BUCKS & REVENGE

More financial fiction from Michael Thomas.
By Chris Tucker |

WITH RARE exceptions, few novelists today seem to know much about money. Consider the works of John Updike, Bernard Malamud, John Irving, Saul Bellow, Joyce Carol Oates. Even the would-be Renaissance man, Norman Mailer, is strangely silent on the subject. Imagine, in the works of these writers or a dozen other popular novelists, any characters having a serious, informed discussion of mergers, rollovers, T-bills, margin calls or leverage. Try to recall the last fictional characters you met who would have been conversant with any of these terms. Good luck.

The cynic will reply that, naturally, our fiction is thin when it comes to economics, for two reasons. First, such subjects are inherently about as interesting as selecting a bar of soap. Not for aught is economics called the dismal science. Second, the ul-tracynic will say, most writers never have any money, anyway, so what could they know about its inner dynamics?

This second argument is pretty pow-erful. A recent Writer’s Digest survey showed that the average writer in this country -including the big guns like Gore Vidal and Irving Stone -rakes in something less than $4,000 a year. Not quite what you’d need for a serious assault on Wall Street.

The dullness argument has its merits, too, although good writers have ways of showing us those unexpected facets of unlikely subjects. Consider what Updike did with a small-town high school in The Centaur or Conrad in Lord Jim, with a young man’s momentary failure of nerve.

Both these reasons for the economic vacuum in our fiction may be valid, but the vacuum becomes even harder to understand when we consider the wave of interest in money matters that has swept the country during the late Seventies and early Eighties. Bookstores carry acres of books on personal finance; Adam Smith and Venita VanCaspel have become cocktail-party heroes. Many newspapers are beefing up their business sections. It would seem that the audience for financial fiction is there.

So, for those astute Eighties-beaters who know that IRAs mean more than Ireland, for those on cozy terms with Inter-Firsts and Citibanks and Eurodollars, get ready: Here comes MoneyFic.

MoneyFic’s prophet of profit is Michael Thomas, president of Fort Worth’s Mar-shalsea Industries and truly a writer for the Eighties. His current novel, Someone Else’s Money, has the same subject that dominated his first book, Green Monday: money. Money doesn’t just talk in Thomas’ fiction -it whispers seductively, shouts orders, makes and breaks marriages, murders old values and creates new. If you’re growing complacent about Reaganomics and hoping to profit from the coming bad years, don’t read Thomas.

The alarms go off early in Thomas’ books, both of which begin with quotations about the evergreen roots of all evil. Opening Green Monday is this quote from Mohammed: “There is a calamity for every people, and for my people it is wealth.” Someone Else’s Money takes its keynote from Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby: “As a portion of the world affect to despise the power of money, I must try and show them what it is.” (Thomas’ Marshal-sea Industries, by the way, takes its name from the old English debtor’s prison. Dickens’ father spent some time there.)

Michael Thomas ought to know something about the power of money. From 1961 to 1972 he worked as a partner and executive officer of two major Wall Street investment banking firms. He left, he said in a recent interview, when “the game changed” and the institutional stockholders became large pension funds rather than individuals. He was appalled when respected Wall Street investment companies began financing hostile takeover moves. “They do so much now that we never dreamed of doing when I started out,” Thomas said.

He has also taught art history at Yale and has worked on the curatorial staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He’s a serious collector and keeps his knowledge of the art world up-to-date. Hence the two cultures -high finance and high art – that are the subjects of Someone Else’s Money.

The serpentine plot of Someone Else’s Money begins in the mind of Buford Gudge IV, a Jock Ewing-style Texas oil baron whose family built the mythical Lazy G Ranch near Amarillo. When Buford was a boy, he watched his mother and her lover shot to death by his grandfather in a grisly scene that serves mainly to tie the book’s beginning to its end. Gudge grows up apparently unfazed by the carnage but differs sharply from the generations of his fathers. He is dying of cancer and is the only Gudge ever to give away part of the Lazy G -blackmailed, we learn, by his despised half-sister Granada, who parlays the “gift” into a fortune of her own. The Lazy G grows into a conglomerate that controls more than $14 billion in assets, but Gudge never forgets his half-sister’s treachery.

Gudge has other enemies, too. A few years earlier, he had been hauled before Sen. Rufus Lassiter’s Select Committee on Illegal Overseas Payments, charged with bribing an African general to help with the escape of three of Gudge’s oil crews from a country about to explode into civil war. On national television, the investigation had become a witch hunt, with Lassiter painting Gudge as “corrupt, greedy and un-American.” He has never forgotten his public humiliation.

Even when the doctors told him about the cancer, he felt it was just a little piece of the big hatred that had broken off and gotten lodged in his blood somewhere. He saw Lassiter as part of something that threatened everything. Lassiter was the East, Big Government, New York -Wall Street. His hatred metastasized into a consuming urge for revenge, a tidal wave that would suck under Lassiter and all the rest of them.

Dying, Gudge vows to destroy “them” and commits all the resources of his Lazy G empire to the task. The details of the vendetta are worked out by Gudge’s assistant, Katagira, a brilliant Japanese who reads de Tocqueville and Emerson and who is convinced that “America [needs] a convulsive, purifying shock at the core of its folly, at the very top of the private sector.” Armed with Gudge’s millions and driven by his abiding scorn for Western materialism, Katagira sets out to administer that shock through the destruction of Seaco Inc., one of America’s most respected investment bankers.

Seaco is a tempting target for Gudge and Katagira for more than one reason: Granada, Gudge’s half sister, has $25 million invested in Seaco and plans a takeover of the company. She’s made no secret of the fact that if she’s successful, she will install her own people at the head of Seaco – with her old friend Rufus Lassiter becoming chief executive upon his retirement from the Senate. Katagira counts on Wall Street’s hubris to help him entrap Seaco. Since the Gudge family has always avoided investing in “paper” -stocks, bonds, options, etc. -Katagira knows that the “paper merchants” of the Street will be all the more interested when Gudge suddenly feigns an interest in the abstract financial games they play. Gudge is thought to be one of the world’s richest men, but he has kept his exact worth a secret by staying out of the public market. He has never filed a disclosure statement; all Gudge assets are guarded by Gudge lawyers and verified by Gudge accountants. Katagira bets that the Street’s lust for the Gudge “action” will silence any prudent old-timers who might want him to prove Gudge’s wealth.

“In the old days,” Katagira tells Gudge, “if a man came to you and said he had a thousand dollars, you could ask to see it and he would bring his gold and coins and you could count them. If you were a banker, a man’s face and talk were his credit. That’s no longer true today, except in certain banks in this part of the world. For the most part, all that exists to prove the existence of wealth is an electrical impulse which a computer translates into a string of digits…. It is all so much paper.

” Frightening, yes. But true? Try going down to the bank and asking to see “your” money.

Thomas gives credibility to his scenario by weaving contemporary social and political truths into his fiction. Since Homer Seabury, founder and president of Seaco, stands to lose his job if Granada takes over the company, Katagira has Gudge ingratiate himself with Seabury by coming to his “rescue.” “Katagira had long since recognized as a cardinal principle of American corporate culture that any risk or tactic was justified in the effort to save a chief executive’s job.” When Katagira decides to exploit “the vast constituency of hope” for the bond market, his reasons are right out of the six o’clock news: “The President insisted that the failure of the investment community to pay 15 percent for twenty-year obligations when 18 percent was being paid for overnight money was a breach of faith with his idealized economics.” By posing as a “bond market mes-siah,” Gudge has the administration’s seal of approval, thus lessening the likelihood that the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Federal Trade Commission will look too closely at his dealings. And, since everything is being done with someone else’s money -so everyone thinks -neither will anyone else, until it’s too late.

Not to reveal the ending of Someone Else’s Money, but Katagira knows the American corporate character all too well. The “Gudge Bull Market” stampedes toward prosperity – for a while. Then, Katagira lets it be revealed that Gudge’s two publicly offered companies, GOD (Gudge Oil Development) and GUT (Gudge Un-der-Surface Technology) exist only on computer paper. The investing public, enticed by Seaco’s underwriting, has paid hundreds of millions of dollars for shares in an imaginary empire. The results are quite predictable: chaos. Katagira has arranged for the demise of the Lazy G to involve as many competing interest groups as possible, all scrambling -with equally valid claims – for a piece of someone else’s money. “In a way, he thought, this would synopsize the evolution of the country: a realm staked out by the determination of a pioneer, expanded by vision and enterprise, to finish as a tired nub ground down and worn away in litigation.”

The self-indulgence and sheer venality of the wealthy barbarians of Someone Else’s Money would be intolerable if the novel did not contain another world where saner human values seem to prosper, at least for a while. Thomas knows art as well as he knows finance, and much of his story makes its impact upon Nick Reverey, a free-lance art dealer and one of the characters who form a bridge between what Thomas calls “the expedient world of business and the immortal world of great art.” Through Nick’s “reveries,” we meet and evaluate Sol Greschner, the legendary public-relations genius modeled after Benjamin Sonnenburg; Harvey Bogle, a corporate raider whose redeeming love of art allows him to understand both the novel’s worlds; Esmé Bogle, Harvey’s novelist wife, whose Gucci-Pucci-orgy style makes her a dead ringer for Judith Krantz; and two of the novel’s most endearing minor characters, Max Lefcourt and Frank San-ger, two elderly aesthetes who have spent a fortune and half a century assembling one of the world’s finest art collections.

The two worlds of Someone Else’s Money are brought into violent collision when Gudge’s wife, Caryn, a pneumatic tart with the brains and morals of an alley cat, decides that buying the Lefcourt Collection would help her curry favor with the New York posh. For the first time, however, Buford Gudge finds something his money cannot buy -which doesn’t mean he can’t have it. Caryn Gudge gets her new toy -she thinks -with tragic results for Lefcourt and Sanger.

Someone Else’s Money is not always grim, however. Often, it’s wickedly, subtly funny, as in the titles of Sen. Lassiter’s books God and Gold and Moral Money, in Esmé Bogle’s scatalogical reading to the prestigious Fuller Institute, in small touches like the name of one tycoon’s retreat. Villa Dinero. And there’s more bitter, biting satire throughout the book. Thomas is by turns amused and disgusted by his wealthy moral outlaws.

This novel often reads more like a sociological critique than a work of fiction. Right down to his often turgid 19th-century style, Michael Thomas proclaims his alienation from all the varieties of mindlessness that pervade our consumer society. It seems almost unfair to note that Thomas does not write very well at times; he’s got so much else going on in this sprawling 500-pager. Sure, the book’s sheer bulk will defeat many readers; careful editing would have pruned at least 100 pages, most of it in glutinous chunks of repetitious prose. Thomas never uses one adjective when two or three will do, he’s addicted to Victorian phrases like “there was nothing for it but to…” and his characters love to let the plot spin its wheels as they deliver endless sermonettes.

Finally she looked at him. “Forgive me, but isn’t this junk, really?” “Indeed, my dearest love,” Nick replied. “But hot junk. Steaming, in fact. A new school to be celebrated. Pap for the writers, fad-discoverers and folks like me who suddenly have museums and heavyweight collectors calling up wanting unknown Czech and Rumanian painters.”

At such moments, Thomas is a victim of his own rhetorical overkill, since passages like this remind us that lovers don’t usually address each other this way.

“If you’re writing the social novel, which I am,” he says, “you’re trying to show how the world works. That means that you’ve got to let the reader hear the tinkling bells of reality.” Much of Thomas’ dialogue rings false, but since there’s comparatively little dialogue in the novel, this is not a major failing. Most of the time, Thomas “speaks” through the thoughts of his vaguely disguised mouthpieces, Nick Reverey or Katagira, and when they’re thinking about art or business, we sense we’re getting the real stuff. After all, Thomas has two successful careers behind him; he knows whereof he speaks.

“I’ve been building up what Louis Auch-incloss calls ’a writer’s capital,’ ” Thomas says. “The great writers of the 19th century-Dickens, Thackeray, Flaubert, many of them – had other jobs before they wrote or while they were writing.” For Thomas, it’s no mystery why so many young writers never progress beyond pseudo-autobiography and first novels about wanting to write. “They don’t know anything about the world,” he says. “They declare that they’re writers at the age of 22 and run off to Putney, Vermont.”

Despite the apocalyptic vision of Someone Else’s Money, Thomas insists that heis not a professional misanthrope. “I’mnot a cynic,” he says. “I have wonderful,optimistic children [one is a student atSMU]. 1 do have a tendency to see thingsas they are, but I have no axes to grind -except against fools and egotists.”

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