The Gods of Greenwich
Hedge fund managers don’t waste time—time is money—so this review won’t, either. To cut to the chase: The Gods of Greenwich is better than most financial thrillers written by former Wall Streeters who figure that if they know how to make money with paper, they also know how to put words on paper.
Of course the novel includes the requisite, snide peek at How the Other Half Lives. (One building’s parking lot has “enough money in cars to rival the GDP of a small Caribbean nation.”) And the arcane financial jargon. (“We thought we were buying alpha. Got beta instead.”) And a page-turner plot. (Serial murders plus the Great Crash of 2008.)
But the cast is an unusually motley and enjoyable crew, ranging from a Boston-Brahmin zoologist with prosopagnosia (the inability to recognize faces), to a head trader who takes female hormones because he thinks women make better traders, to a pair of cousins from Iceland. (Now that’s a venue you don’t see much in financial thrillers. As a bonus, readers get to learn about Icelandic culinary treats such as hakarl, or fermented shark, and the national drink svarti daudi, “brewed from potato pulp and caraway seeds.”)
Even better, for a long time there are actually some nuances to the characters’ personalities. Jimmy Cusack, the protagonist, whose hedge fund collapses at the start of the book, seems to be a desperate risk-taker as well as a devoted son, uncle, and husband. Cy Leeser, his new boss and co-founder of the hedge fund LeeWell Capital, seems to be a mix of macho charm, nerve, smarts, decency, and sleaziness, humanized by occasional scenes where he must kowtow to a demanding silent partner. When he hires Cusack as his head of sales, Leeser begins the job interview by asking, “Ginger or Mary Ann?”—that is, which Gilligan’s Island character does Cusack prefer? A reader isn’t sure whether to root for—or, more accurately, against—Leeser or the Icelandic cousins, each of which groups is willing to drag down a perfectly fine company (an alternative energy startup! a major bank in Iceland!) in order to thwart the other side.
The story, unfolding over the twelve months leading up to and just after Lehman Brothers’ collapse in September 2008, centers around Cusack’s growing discomfort about how LeeWell makes money and whether it—and he—can avoid going down with the markets. Hedge funds are inherently mysterious. They are not traded on public stock exchanges; their investors are a handful of super-private, superrich gazillionaires; they claim to have propriety systems. But LeeWell is particularly secretive. Certainly, someone who is about to invest $40 million in a fund might have the right to know what sorts of securities his money will buy and what system the fund uses to reduce risk? Leeser invariably answers: “LeeWell Capital has never had a down year.” And: “We hedge.”
LeeWell is, of course, located in Greenwich, Connecticut, the epicenter of hedge funds—hence the gods of the book’s title, which seem to be author Norb Vonnegut’s answer to Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe in The Bonfire of the Vanities. (And Wolfe’s 1987 book remains the best novel ever written about Wall Street.)
Meanwhile, even as LeeWell and Cusack are desperately trying to salvage a few bucks of profit, and the Icelanders are playing their countergame with the help of some Qatari sheiks, and Cusack is coping with father-in-law troubles, a sexy, sociopathic nurse named Rachel Whittier is murdering one old codger after another for no apparent reason, working for a boss she weirdly calls “Kemosabe.” (She’s not exactly the solid, faithful, Tonto type.)
Unfortunately, the genre’s stock characters and pedestrian writing finally win out. Leeser is even more evil than the reader initially realized. Cusack, with his charmingly “crooked” smile ad nauseam, doesn’t really take risks, or only does so to support his widowed mother, pregnant wife, and the kids of his two brothers who are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. All the good guys get their just rewards at the end, and the baddies get theirs.
Moreover the snide descriptions of the Other Half grow tiresome, and Vonnegut seems to have a fixation about citing every character’s height, weight, and eye color. Rachel’s eyes “shone the emerald hue of a Bermuda lawn.” Cusack’s wife Emi, the face-blind zoologist, has blue eyes that “sparkled with the light . . . of a thousand sapphire prisms.” A potential investor’s “brown eyes radiated an appealing mix of energy and curiosity.”
And yet Cy Leeser displays a nice touch of spice toward the end. The estrogen-taking trader retains some original possibilities.
So maybe there is hope that Norb Vonnegut—a former stockbroker and a distant cousin of Kurt—has inherited a bit of the family talent. The book is a fun enough ride through Greenwich, albeit in a Ford rather than a Lexus.