Shady short sales, insider trading, and SEC violations form the moral dilemmas of this debut novel, set against the remote landscape of Bolivia.
In his debut novel, A Young Man’s Guide To Late Capitalism, Seattle-based writer Peter Mountford draws back the veil on one of America’s most baffling investment products—the hedge fund. Through clear, measured prose and deeply realized characters, Mountford captures the individual and national impact of America’s financial dabbling in third-world countries.
It is late 2005 in La Paz, Bolivia. The country is on the eve of the presidential election that brought current president Evo Morales to power. Financiers around the globe are hungry for information. Will Morales nationalize the country’s booming gas market? Or will he allow major private corporations to operate in Bolivia and reap the rewards of the nation’s abundant natural resources? Gabriel Francisco de Boya, a young analyst on his first assignment for the Fallon Group—a smaller, New York-based hedge fund known for playing “as fast and dirty as possible”—is charged with determining that very thing.
After five years scraping by as a reporter in Manhattan, watching friends accrue spectacular wealth, giant condos, and beautiful women, Gabriel, a frustrated, intelligent young man, has become obsessed with “the millionaire thing.” Enter the Fallon Group. After an interview with Priya Singh, the lean and brassy fund manager, the hedge fund hires Gabriel to monitor the business activities in small Latin American countries. When his first paycheck—$27,751 for less than a month of work—hits his bank account, Gabriel’s future suddenly explodes in front of him “as glorious and wide as the sea.”
In a way Mountford takes that huge kaleidoscopic financial monster—the hedge fund—and gives it a face. For Gabriel the stakes are clear. If he succeeds in Bolivia, he’ll make a small fortune. If not, he’ll be fired, and likely go back to a difficult, though somewhat noble, life as an underpaid reporter. But of course things don’t go smoothly in La Paz. There is the upheaval of the election itself. Then Gabriel falls in love with the mysterious Lenka, Morales’ press secretary. Gabriel’s mother, a “ferociously liberal” American college professor who fled Chile in the early 1970s and raised Gabriel as a single mother, prods him with prying questions about his job. When she shows up in Bolivia after the election to interview Morales herself, Gabriel faces a heartbreaking collision of his new, greed-driven life and the socially conscious values with which he was raised.
The question of identity—who we are to ourselves, who we present to the world, why we erect the personas we do—runs throughout Mountford’s book. For many, the word “hedge fund” conjures a darkened boardroom filled with financial shenanigans and obscene wealth, and like the shifting, ephemeral vehicle he works for, Gabriel adopts and casts away identities at a quick clip. When we first meet him, he’s engaged in a love affair with a hard-worn, veteran reporter for The Wall Street Journal. His cover: a struggling freelance journalist looking to eke out a few morsels of information on Bolivia’s closely guarded Article IV report, a financial document that forecasts the economic outlook of the entire nation for investors. Gabriel carries that sympathetic persona into hotel bars, interviews with international money managers, and ultimately his relationship with Lenka. But Gabriel isn’t very good at deception, and as his personas crumble, people begin to see him for what he is: a financial looter trying to pillage Morales’ plan for the Bolivia’s natural gas reserves and rip and run at the expense of the nation’s fragile economy.
Though A Young Man’s Guide is a novel about money, money never feels like the point here. Mountford avoids the pitfalls of other financial novels by crafting complex characters, characters who are driven more by personal ideals and ambitions than cold cash. In a novel as much about being trapped in a life as finding a life, Gabriel’s plan for getting out of Bolivia with his job and with Lenka involves a complicated, and possibly illegal, financial maneuver. Shady short sales, insider trading, borderline SEC violations—those things are there. But the heart of the book lies in its characters, and the landscape itself—the remote, shrouded mountains of Bolivia.
In his powerfully-written, quick-paced, and timely debut, Mountford shines a hard light on today’s frantic financial amphitheater—a place where morality is secondary to making a dollar and large companies can sabotage entire counties. By the end of the book, Mountford forces the reader to consider the true value of “the millionaire thing” in the face of human relationships, as Gabriel negotiates his morally tenuous future as a budding financial tycoon and his relationships with Lenka, the people of Bolivia, and his mother.