A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism

by Peter Mountford

A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism

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A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism
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Peter Mountford

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Book Summary

In 2005 La Paz, Bolivia, hedge-fund agent Gabriel hatches a dangerous plan to gain insider information on the country's president-elect, a scheme that could cost him the love of his girlfriend, who is also the president's press liaison, as well as his headstrong mother. A first novel. Original. 20,000 first printing.

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Excerpt: A Young Man's Guide To Late Capitalism

A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism

A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism


Mariner Books

Copyright © 2011 Peter Mountford
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780547473352

1
Article IV Report
Friday, November 25, 2005


IT BEGAN WITH a single reedy voice calling out an incomprehensible
refrain, some nasally phrase that would repeat all morning. Gabriel
opened his eyes. The day’s first light glowed pale at the edge of the curtains.
He’d requested an eighth-floor room hoping to avoid this. He
closed his eyes again, optimistically. Another voice — this one burpy,
froggish — joined in; this phrase was shorter. What could they be selling
at that hour? A third voice entered and they were a chorus singing
some garbled tune, a puzzle of phrases intoned with the distinctive eagerness
of street vendors across the world. Car horns added a percussive
layer. A policeman blew a whistle, hoping to introduce order, but
all he added was a shrill note. Still, the sound didn’t truly find its center
until the buses and micros joined in, shoving their way down the narrow
roads. Gabriel knew that the noise had reached its peak register then:
a din that would blast for sixteen hours. A symphony forever tuning up
before its concert — it brayed him awake, brayed him to sleep. It was
pure dissonance, but as he lay there he found that the anticipation of
future harmony was palpable.
 Gabriel walked through to the bathroom, flipped on the light, and
observed himself, hair askew, eyes puffy with sleep. Puberty had hit
him young, at ten, but full-blown manhood seemed to be still in the
offing. In college, he’d tried to grow an I-don’t-care-about-all-that-shit
beard, but he’d ended up looking weird, and the truth — that he cared a
lot — became obvious because he wouldn’t stop talking about the beard,
so he had to give up and shave it off. Five years later, he was just as
willowy, but he’d cut away the profusion of black hair and was shaving
regularly.
 He brushed his teeth with bottled water and showered, making sure
not to let any of the water into his mouth. Typhoid, amoebas, hepatitis,
and dozens of other dangerous microbes swam in those pipes. The tap
water even smelled different: chalky, it seemed. The water was so hard
it swept the soap off his skin before he could lather up.
 Back in his bedroom with a teeny white towel wrapped around his
waist, he slid open the curtains to see the crisp alpine light streaming
down on the chaos below.
 The protests usually ended by lunchtime. If there was a march, it
finished in Plaza Murillo, in front of the presidential palace. It had been
this way since he arrived. The police stashed anti-riot gear in a dozen
ministerial buildings on or near the plaza. Tear gas drifted through La
Paz’s narrow streets like morning mist. When the gas seeped into Gabriel’s
room at Hotel Gloria, it felt like a cloud of cayenne had been
blown into his face. The first time this happened, he found that it took
hours to dissipate, so when it happened again today, he abandoned his
room. He took his laptop and went across the street to the Lookout, the
top-floor restaurant at Hotel Presidente, where he could write in peace
while his room aired out.
 No sooner had he sat down at the bar of the Lookout and opened
his laptop than the bartender, Severo, told him that he’d already made
enough pisco sours to get all the journalists in La Paz drunk. Gabriel
smiled obligingly. It was ten in the morning and a few journalists were
already gathering in the booths, drinking pisco sours. This was the end
of the so-called Bolivian Gas War, and the fact that the war had been
little more than a protracted series of protests did nothing to diminish
the atmosphere of doomsday hedonism among the foreign press.
Severo had latched on to Gabriel, who was set apart from the others
by his youth, his ambiguous ethnicity, his fluency in Spanish, and, perhaps,
the fact that he was Fiona’s boy toy.
 He and Fiona had first met a week before, when they both arrived
on that day’s American Airlines flight from Miami. They had stood next
to each other in line at the taxi stand, misty breath vanishing in gusts.
She introduced herself and suggested that they share a taxi if he was
headed downtown as well. They sat in the back seat of a cramped yellow
car, which zipped down the winding road to La Paz, its engine
emitting an ominous burning odor the whole way.
 Later that day, Fiona had gone behind the bar at the Lookout to
show Severo how to make the best pisco sour in the world. “It’s all about
the quantity of egg white and the ratio of ice to liquid,” she explained,
delivering a tray of the cocktails to the table of journalists who were all
there to cover the presidential race. “I slipped a Rohypnol into yours,”
she said to Gabriel and winked, and maybe it was just his first two pisco
sours, but for a second he had felt as though he could fall in love with
someone like her.
 Fiona’s pisco sours were such a hit with the journalists that apparently
Severo was now making them by the bucketful before his shift.
 Gabriel wrote for fifteen minutes at the bar before Severo said,
“Where is your girl?”
 “Fiona?” How generous of him to call Fiona a girl. Generous too, if in
a different way, to imply that she was Gabriel’s. “I’m going to meet her
soon.”
 Severo nodded. “Is she a good journalist?”
 Gabriel said that she was great. He said that she seemed to get interviews
with whomever she wanted. Then he qualified this by explaining
that she worked for the Wall Street Journal.
 “Your newspaper is not so big?”
 Gabriel held up a pinkie finger to indicate the size, and Severo
laughed. “Actually,” Gabriel said, “I don’t even have a newspaper. I am
freelance.” He didn’t know the Spanish word for freelance so he just said
it in English.
 Severo nodded, his eyebrows scrunched, and Gabriel could see that
he didn’t understand. It didn’t matter to Severo. He just wanted to know
whether he should be impressed. He just needed to know how to react.
Gabriel said, “Not that many people read what I write, but the ones
who do are big international investors.”
 Severo seemed to appreciate that. “What do you say about us?”
 Gabriel shrugged. “I try to be honest.”
 “Don’t you think that things will get better?” Severo said. “I do.”
 Gabriel grimaced. “I hope so.”
 And Severo, who had seemed so blasé a few minutes before, so carefree,
stared at Gabriel, a plastic jar of pisco sour in his hand, and said,
“Please don’t write anything bad about us.” It was the most heartfelt
thing Gabriel had heard all week.
 “I won’t,” Gabriel assured him. He made plenty of eye contact, to indicate
his sincerity.
 But as it happened, he was mid-draft in a brief stating that the Bolivian
government’s reluctance to publish their latest Article IV report
only reinforced his doubts about their future.
 The Article IV report was a candid — and therefore highly classi-
fied — analysis of a country’s economy and problems, including a critical
assessment of its policies, written by the International Monetary
Fund. Gabriel had been trying to get his hands on a copy since he’d arrived.
Most countries published their Article IV reports, even if these
documents gave grim appraisals of the future. They published the reports
ostensibly in the interest of full disclosure but really to assure investors
they had nothing to hide. So the fact that Bolivia was so reluctant
to publish its latest A-IV indicated, Gabriel wrote, “that this is
probably among the most dour A-IVs in the country’s history.”
 To ensure that the report would not be leaked, the Bolivian authorities
had asked that the IMF print only a handful of specially numbered
copies and carefully restrict who saw them. Within Bolivia, President
Rodríguez had a copy, as did the head of the central bank, the finance
minister, and the vice president. President Rodríguez’s unpopularity was
such that he was no longer even talking to the press, so Gabriel didn’t
bother trying to contact him about the A-IV. The others wouldn’t return
his calls. A fifth copy of the report was in the hands of the IMF’s
resident representative, Grayson McMillan, who had agreed to meet
Gabriel that afternoon. The snag was that Grayson didn’t have the authority
to give out the report. There was only one other copy that Gabriel
knew of, and that was Fiona’s. She had admitted she had it the
other night, in a rare postcoital moment of tenderness. “The vice president
gave it to me,” she’d said.
 “Did he really?”
 “Yes, he really did. But I can’t quote from it.”
 “Oh, that’s too bad.”
 Gabriel didn’t bother asking her if she’d let him see it. She was the
only journalist with a copy and she’d be crazy to endanger her exclusivity
by showing it to anyone, whether or not she was sleeping with him.
 What Fiona did not know, and had no way of knowing, was that despite
what he’d been telling everyone, Gabriel was not actually a freelance
writer. He was not a journalist at all, in fact. Not anymore. For the
last month, Gabriel had been working as a political analyst for the Calloway
Group, a hedge fund.
 Once he’d finished the first five pages of his report, Gabriel went to
an empty side of the restaurant, got out his cell phone, read the finance
minister’s number, and took a deep breath. He attempted to assemble his
ideas. He had not yet grown accustomed to interviewing these genuinely
powerful people. For the past four years, when he’d been writing
for the online financial paper Investors Business International, he’d felt like a
hack. Now, at the Calloway Group, it was worse: he was expected to weasel
sensitive information from these people. And the stakes were dizzyingly
high. There could be tens of millions of dollars on the line. His boss,
Priya, would not tell him exactly how much or where it was going.
 In theory, his job at Calloway wasn’t so unlike his job at Investors
Business International, except that what he wrote now wouldn’t be published.
Quite the reverse; what he wrote now was confidential. The less
their competitors knew, the better. Gabriel’s cover, such as it was, was
that he was a freelance writer hoping to do a long piece on the Bolivian
election for a magazine — it was precisely the kind of assignment he’d
have been given by IBI a few months before.
 He took another deep breath, looked out the window. La Paz was a
long and narrow city. It filled a craggy ravine on the eastern outskirts of
the altiplano, or high plain: thirteen thousand feet high in this case. The
steep faces of the canyon around the city were covered with slums. The
slums were colored red by the cheap bricks of mountain mud the inhabitants
used to build their shacks. Even farther up, toward the ridge, the
hills were studded with clusters of shantytowns, home to only the most
intrepid of the city’s poor. The terrain was unforgiving, desolate, rocky;
it looked primitive. It looked Afghani; it looked like al-Qaeda territory.
 Gabriel dialed the number, pressed Send. The phone rang once.
A brief silence. It rang a second time. Someone answered. “¿Aló?” the
voice said. A man’s voice.
 “Hello, I am a friend of Fiona Musgrave,” Gabriel said in Spanish.
He spoke too fast, intending to make it clear he was fluent, because
sometimes he had a slight hint of a gringo’s accent. “I was hoping to talk
to you about the Article IV report.”
 “Fiona gave you this number?” the man responded.
 “She did.”
 “You’re a journalist?”
 “I’m a freelance writer,” he said, leaving the word freelance in English
again. He added a pause. “I need to speak off the record.”
 “What kind of journalist wants to speak off the record?”
 This was the problem. Presenting himself as a freelance writer did
not, it turned out, engender much enthusiasm with interviewees. Gabriel
wanted to believe that if he told people for whom he really worked,
they’d be impressed. He wanted to think that they’d give him the same
star treatment they gave Fiona. But he couldn’t risk it getting out that
the Calloway Group was interested in Bolivia. He was lucky to have the
job — more than lucky, in fact — and they wouldn’t need much of an
excuse to fire him. He hadn’t even told his mother about the job. Still,
he needed to entice the minister to speak somehow, so he went forward
with innuendo. “Have you heard of the Calloway Group?” He said the
Calloway Group in English, in an American accent.
 “The hedge fund?” The finance minister was still in Spanish. “You
work for them?”
 Gabriel didn’t answer the question. This was the plan, to imply that
he worked for them but stop short of stating the fact directly. It was important
that the minister know that the stakes for Bolivia were real; until
now, few hedge funds had ventured near countries as backward and
unstable as Bolivia. But it was also important that the minister see that
the Calloway Group wanted to be discreet about their interest. “I’m just
asking to take a look at the Article Four report,” he said. “It’d be completely
off the record. It’s all just deep background for a long piece I’m
researching.”
 The minister let out a weary sigh. “Does Fiona know whom you
work for?”
 “Fiona knows that I am a consultant.” Gabriel paused again, in case
the insinuation wasn’t clear. “If you have another opinion, that’s your
business.” Gabriel wondered if this was going well. It was hard to tell.
 “Why would I share a classified document with a hedge fund that
has a reputation for vampirism?”
 “Excuse me?” Gabriel said. “I think you’ve misunderstood me.”
 “I was with Morgan Stanley in 2001, and I remember Calloway.
They’d nudge a price until it triggered a short spike. They’d milk the
spike on the upside, and back down again on the fall to equilibrium.
They were like feral animals during the Argentina crisis: went from a
hundred percent long to a hundred percent short in seconds on a rumor
that they themselves probably started. They may have done well, but
we all found the strategy sleazy. There was no vision, no philosophy,
except to play as fast and dirty as possible.”
  “If they were interested in Bolivian industry, it’d be a very different
thing,” Gabriel said.
 “Right. They’d be looking at multinationals with significant exposure
to Bolivian commodities, gas, I suppose, in the face of this unusual
election?”
 Gabriel hesitated. The purpose of his cover was now clear to him.
Based solely on his hint that he worked for Calloway, the minister had
triangulated a very accurate reading of Calloway’s investment strategy
in Bolivia. With a tiny intimation, Gabriel had exposed everything Priya
had wanted to keep under wraps. “I’m not going to speculate on what
they would do here.”
 “Right, right.” The minister cleared his throat. “I’m surprised they
sent you. Are you sure you didn’t go to the wrong country? Brazil is a
little to the right.”
 “You don’t want to show me the Article Four, I take it.”
 “You are at the bottom of the list of people I would show that report
to.” His voice was hoarse. He sounded wrecked. He sounded exhausted.
 Eager to backpedal, Gabriel said, “I’m just a writer looking for material.”
 “And I’m Ronald McDonald. But you don’t need to worry. I won’t
tell anyone.”
 Gabriel felt a great relief hearing that.
 The minister said, “I don’t want to repel you people any more than
I want to throw the door open to you. It’s hard for me to imagine, but I
do hope that people like your boss will eventually see the wealth available
here to foreign investors. It is a very rich country if you are prepared
to commit for the long term.” His voice had been lifting there at
the end, and he caught himself, shut it down. He sighed. He must have
known he was talking to the wrong person.
 “I understand,” Gabriel said. He didn’t know what to say.
 “Anything else?” the minister said.
 “No. Thank you for your time,” he said. Gabriel could hear that the
minister was in traffic. Riding in a limousine through the squalor, probably.
It had to be hard.
 “Fine. Don’t call this number again.” The minister hung up.

Fiona answered the door in her white terry-cloth bathrobe, BlackBerry
at her ear. She winked hello and slammed the door behind him. Gabriel
sat down on the sofa, kicked his feet up on the coffee table. Fiona
shimmied out of the robe and flung it onto the bed. She peeked around
the curtain at the city. “I know,” she said into the phone, “that’s what I
was saying, but we can always pad it if we’re still short.” Fiona had been
the South America correspondent for the Journal since Gabriel was a
freshman at Claremont High. And she was proud, he supposed, of her
body — rightfully so.
 He took his laptop out of its bag and checked his e-mail. Nothing. It
was Friday, and he was supposed to turn in his report tomorrow. When
she finished her conversation, Fiona chucked her BlackBerry onto the
sofa. “Tell me, Gabriel, why are you still wearing clothes?”
 “I’ve been gassed out of my hotel again,” he said, not looking up
from the screen.
 She lit a cigarette and flopped on the sofa beside him. “That’s the advantage
of a five-star hotel: airtight windows.” She smiled. It was a joke.
Sort of. Hotel Presidente boasted that it was the highest five-star hotel
in the world, and though its elevation wasn’t in dispute, the five-star status
seemed, to the foreign press who stayed there, a hilarious example
of Bolivian pride in the face of meager circumstances.
 Hotel Gloria, across the street, had a three-star rating but cost half
as much, without much discernible difference in quality. Calloway
would have paid for whatever hotel Gabriel wanted, but Hotel Gloria
was modest enough to help him maintain his cover. So went his thinking.
The décor of both the Gloria and the Presidente must have seemed
terribly modern when they were decorated in the 1970s — all pumpkin
shag carpets, cucumber walls, clunky chandeliers, and lots of tawny
glass. It was a look that would have read hip and ironic in New York,
and Gabriel was probably the only foreigner who found its sincerity
in Bolivia refreshing. Unlike the others, he believed that the management
of the hotels knew perfectly well how outmoded their décor was.
It wasn’t any funnier than the fact that their roads were falling apart. It
just made an easier target.
 “What do you have planned for the day?” Fiona asked. Little puffs of
smoke staggered out of her mouth as she spoke.
 “I’m meeting the IMF’s resident representative at three.”
 “Grayson! I’m meeting him at one.” She put her cigarette back in the
ashtray. She had ordered scrambled eggs for breakfast, and the plate
sat, untouched, on the coffee table. “I’m having lunch with him. You
better not scoop me!” She flashed a lupine grin, and he understood that
it had been a joke: he could never scoop her. Not that it mattered, really.
“Well, Gabriel,” she said, “I’ve got forty-five minutes before I have to go
meet him, so I suggest you undress.”
 “I was just wondering if you have the vice president’s number,” he
said.
 “No luck with the finance minister?”
 “No luck with him.”
 “Well, I can’t give out the vice president’s number.”
 He nodded, started typing. She made a little show of checking her
watch. “Look,” she said, “there are protests in Sopocachi today, and traffic
 will be awful, so if we’re not going to fuck right now, I should get
dressed.”
 He looked up at her, blankly as possible, and, feigning befuddlement,
said, “Right, um . . . I just — ” He gestured vaguely toward the screen.
 She smiled, barely. Stubbed out her cigarette. “Ouch,” she said.
 “No, no, it’s not — ” he began, but he didn’t finish because she waved
him off. It was a funny trick, a special talent of hers, to come across simultaneously
as mocking and genuinely hurt.
 Gabriel believed that Fiona’s caustic streak was a big part of why she
was still single; that, and the bizarre nudity. In the six days since they’d
shared a taxi from the airport to downtown La Paz, she had been na11
ked at least half the time he saw her. She wrote dispatches naked, ate
room service naked, watched television and conducted conference calls
naked. She had a hearty appetite for sex and fucked vigorously, as if it
were an aerobic routine and he were a piece of equipment in her gym.
At climax her volt-blue eyes squinted and her nostrils flared. When she
smoked afterward, he could sometimes see her heart flexing in her rib
cage. With Fiona, he was often aware that she was a living being, that
her body was a strange thing, a sack full of organs and bones and fluids,
everything in shades of pink and ivory and aubergine.
 She lit a new cigarette, stood up, and went over to her suitcase,
which was splayed on the floor. “What should I wear to lunch?” she
said. “I’ve heard Grayson’s a dreamboat.”
 “Buck-naked seems to work pretty well for you,” Gabriel said.
“Maybe you should show up in the buff?” Then, unable to resist, he
added, “It’d simplify the exchange.”
 She didn’t bother answering. She picked up a gray skirt and a pair of
vintage oxblood heels, sat on the edge of the bed, and started to dress,
her cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, smoke rising into
her eyes. He put his computer away and stood up.
 “You leaving?” she said from the side of her mouth, squinting at him
through the smoke. She pulled on the skirt, zipped it at the side. She
was not going to wear underwear, apparently.
 “Yeah, I’ll see you after.”
 “Do me a favor: bring your libido.”


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