Ways and Means: A Novel

Image of Ways and Means: A Novel
Release Date: 
February 6, 2024
The Overlook Press
Reviewed by: 

Ways and Means is an amazing debut novel from a prodigiously gifted young writer. . . . virtuosic storytelling.”

The first sentence of Daniel Lefferts’ Ways and Means sets the theme of this fascinating, complex, often funny saga of life in our troubled time: “The first thing Alistair thought about was the money.” Ways and Means centers on the way three young men confront the true meaning of money and the price one pays for coveting it without considering its implications. The year is 2016, the year of Donald Trump’s election, and the social forces that will bring Trump to the White House and control of one of our two political parties, are at the heart of the novel’s dark satire.

Alistair McCabe lives for money. He came to business school in New York City from depressed upstate Binghamton intent on making a fortune and rescuing his beloved mother Maura from what he sees as middle-class drabness. Alistair is a devout consumer who spends through his student loans. He wants the trappings of wealth before he has earned the money to afford them. He jumps at the chance of making big money without first considering what his job entails.

Through friends, Alistair meets Nikolai, an alcoholic Bulgarian who sets him up in an extremely lucrative job that even seems to be morally uplifting. Nikolai works for Herve, a fracking billionaire who claims to be funding establishments to help the poor. Alistair soon discovers that Herve’s public service projects represent a much more violent, terrifying agenda—the destruction of the federal government—because Herve knows what will fill the resultant vacuum, “free enterprise. The freest you can imagine.” Through a failed attempt to wrest some good from this negativity, Alistair becomes a fugitive from this ultra-rich madman.

Alistair has been in a menage a trois with a couple, Mark and Elijah, who experience their own moral evolution. Mark, a would-be novelist who has never written anything, has, with the help of his partner Elijah, a would-be artist, run through the million-dollar fund his father has given him. Now he must go back to his family’s New Jersey home and work for his father, who has made a fortune from trailer parks. Mark’s father may be exploiting the poor who depend on such places, but the hedge fund that is trying to buy the business is even more craven. Mark’s attempts to inject morality into these business dealings exposes the rifts in his family and leads to violence.

Elijah gets involved with Jay, an amoral, apolitical artist who is exploiting the current MAGA craze without any sense of its social or moral implications. Jay’s attempts at art lead to bizarre scenes where men in MAGA hats have nightlong orgies. Jay, who proudly asserts his lack of morality of any kind, sees the MAGA movement as an unleashing of the libido and, Jay asserts, “If the libido itself were a form of government, it would, I think you’ll agree, be an authoritarian one.”

Each of the three young men, then, come under the influence of a powerful, destructive personality who represents an aspect of the decadence of contemporary America. Ways and Means is in great part about the moral education of three young men at a turbulent, terrifying time in American history. What they learn is the corrosive power of money: “As long as it was able to pool in few hands and drain from many others, it would always implicate anyone who touched it in its cruelty.” But how can one live without money?

Ways and Means is also a love story centered on the troubled dynamics of the relationship between Mark, Elijah, and Alistair. As they go through extreme experiences, suffer, and mature in different ways, their relationships change. Daniel Lefferts is interested in sexual dynamics, particularly the dynamics of gay sex, and in their relationship to the spiritual dynamics of gay love. As with everything else, there is a politics of gay sex that involves an element of willful submission.

What these three men gain through their varying degrees of suffering are different forms of spiritual awakening: “Add up everything you’re willing to give, subtract what you might get back, and whatever’s left over is the measure of your soul.”

The moral center of the novel is Alistair’s mother, Maura, who has watched her husband die as a result of his overweening ambition and now sees her son destroying himself through his worship of money. Maura is totally devoted to Alistair but ultimately must find herself. 

Lefferts covers an enormous amount of ground in this 400-page saga of the beginning of the Trump era: satire on contemporary politics, business, and art, dissection of the dynamics of gay sex and love, and the forces that can make or corrupt the American family. He does all this with a great deal of wit and compassion. As heavy as his subjects seem, there are wildly comic moments—and a great deal of love. Alistair, Mark, Elijah, and Maura are, as E.M. Forster would say, fully rounded characters surrounded by fascinating, frightening grotesques.

Ways and Means is an amazing debut novel from a prodigiously gifted young writer. It will be interesting to see how Daniel Lefferts can match or top this piece of virtuosic storytelling.