Sex. Money. Espionage. Bolivia.
The press kit for A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism says it offers “a rare view of the fascinating and often misunderstood realm of international markets and their political underpinnings.” Yawn, right? But after just ten pages the story kicks into gear.
First gear is personal: Gabriel de Boya, the young man of the title, has quit his post as a journalist to take a risky, lucrative job at a hedge fund, which goes against everything he once believed about the evils of capitalism. Second gear is political: Gabriel’s on-the-job actions could have major repercussions, to the tune of hundreds of millions gained or lost on the international stock market. Third gear is atmospheric: he’s been assigned to Bolivia, a country rich in natural beauty and tragic history, on the eve of an extraordinary cultural upheaval.
And just like that, Peter Mountford’s debut novel speeds off, down the crowded streets of La Paz. If Graham Greene and Gordon Gekko collaborated on a South American travelogue, it would go something like this.
Being a lying bastard is part of Gabriel’s new job description. He tells people he’s a freelance journalist, because no one will give sensitive information to hedge fund. And he’s sleeping with an older, sex-crazed Wall Street Journal reporter for strictly professional reasons. So Gabriel has developed “a comfortable way with deceit” by the time he meets Lenka, the beautiful press secretary for a long-shot presidential candidate named Evo Morales. As Gabriel and Lenka fall for each other, they can’t tell if they’re being manipulated, or if they ought to be manipulating each other more. When Evo wins the presidency in a stunning victory, Gabriel and Lenka are suddenly placed at odds. Mountford lets the dark ambiguities of their relationship fill the space between them, unresolved and perhaps unresolvable.
Mountford succinctly distills the very contemporary anxieties that motivate Gabriel on his Bolivian mission. Gabriel thinks he can strike a Faustian bargain with capitalism: in exchange for working his ass off at a ruthless hedge fund for a few years, he plans to accrue enough savings that he’ll never have to soil his hands with money again. It’s a temptation that afflicts many Americans of a certain generation—those of us who listen to anti-establishment rock music on our iPods (over 220 million sold!), for instance—and in Mountford’s hands, the Faustian dilemma feels fresh. Gabriel tries to convince himself that greed is not “a cold and cerebral sin,” but a milder crime of passion. Because if you work briefly at a hedge fund,
you’d probably be able to give each of your eight grandchildren a new Jetta on his or her sixteenth birthday without a problem. It was a different scale of reward. It was so outsize that Gabriel could not see how to convince himself that something like his relationship with Lenka—sublime and wonderful as it was turning out to be—could take priority.
A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism showcases the canny strategizing that governs every move Gabriel makes in Bolivia. In each conversation he has something to seek—for instance, an exclusive scoop on how the incoming minister of finance will alter the national policy toward oil companies—and something about his motives to hide. Mountford slows down the dialogue in these places and narrates the what-if scenarios that run through Gabriel’s head as he confronts the sticky questions of global finance. It turns out “international markets and their political underpinnings” can be fun to read about, after all.
– Brian Hurley