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BOOK REVIEW

A reckless and greedy man as allegory of financial crisis

By Barbara Fisher
July 2, 2011

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In the first paragraph of this chilling debut novel, Neil Fox describes his situation. “I still had plenty of money in 1970, more than my neighbors could reasonably hope to come by, yet not so much anymore that I could forget them.’’ Neil is acutely aware of what he has and what his neighbors have that might be better. He has become rich through the questionable ventures of his small investment banking firm and through a partnership with his brother, Mickey, who “had a talent for structuring deals along heads-we-win-tails-you-lose lines.’’

Although making money seems to be all he cares about, he doesn’t seem to care about it very much. In fact he doesn’t seem to care much about anything. His mode is not to do, not to be committed, involved, or engaged. He is as passive as he can be, declining invitations, leaving early, excusing himself, retreating, not speaking, not answering the telephone or the door.

In “The Arriviste’’ James Wallenstein creates Neil Fox, a now unfortunately recognizable figure. Neil is an affluent Long Island suburbanite whose private self-involvement and self-delusion have profound repercussions.

Neil has recently been left by his wife, who simply walked out after a minor disagreement at the start of a dismal evening. He has become estranged from his daughter, who is away at school and never calls. He is not even certain whether Cecilia is his girlfriend or someone else’s and cares too little to bother to find out. His asthmatic son, dead for 10 years, engaged his sympathies, but not enough to take steps that might have saved his life. His brother and business partner Mickey is the active one - the deal maker, handshaker, backslapper, joke teller, and drinking companion. Neil is always fatigued, too tired to talk business or pursue pleasure. Nothing is worth his while.

It is 1971 as a new neighbor, Bud Younger, moves in next door to Neil in his upscale neighborhood. (Pools and tennis courts interrupt the expansive lawns; Alfa Romeos sit in the garages.) Bud is aggressively neighborly - stopping by to chat, inviting Neil to parties, introducing Neil to friends and girlfriends. His persistence pays off. He achieves the dubious reward of being invited to participate in a venture with Mickey and Neil’s firm. After allowing Mickey to entice Bud into one of his schemes, Neil withdraws what small interest and effort he had put into the deal, leaving Bud to flounder and fail. When the deal goes (inevitably) bad, and Neil is accused of taking no interest in the ins and outs of the business, he says, “I’m supposed to be a silent partner, silent and deaf. If I had had any idea when I agreed to go in with him - whenever that was - that I’d have to hear about it every day, do you think I’d have done it? I gave him a few sous. It isn’t worth my time.’’

Neil seems to be a sorry, passive guy, trying not very hard and not very effectively to avoid making things worse. He openly confesses his modest goals - to hold his own, stay on the sidelines, shift the blame, and still share in the profits. While it’s easy to identify with his engaging and modest voice, identifying too closely leads one into identifying with the very people who have recklessly endangered our economy.

While “The Arriviste’’ operates as a portrait of one man, at the same time, it operates as an allegory of our current financial collapse. Neil Fox is exemplary of the few greedy, irresponsible, and reckless guys, who, while claiming innocence and ignorance, have become immensely rich at the expense of the many poor suckers. The horrifying ending makes it clear that standing complacently on the beach while a man is drowning is the same as holding him down while he goes under.

Barbara Fisher, a freelance writer who lives in New York, can be reached at bfishershorttakes@gmail.com.

THE ARRIVISTE

By James Wallenstein

Milkweed, 328 pp., paperback, $16