A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism by Peter Mountford
A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism
By Peter Mountford
Hardcover, 304 pages
List Price: $15.95
Charm was not among Priya's gifts. She was lean and ambitious and had a temperament of hammered iron. Priya was from Bombay and had been in charge of emerging-markets equity for the Calloway Group for five years. She had studied at Oxford in the nineties and when she finished there had promptly been launched as a fund manager at Lehman, where her portfolio was the only one to turn a profit during the Asian crisis. A millionaire by twenty-eight, she could supposedly intuit peaks and troughs in the market as well as Warren Buffett could. Every day she spent an hour at the gym with her personal trainer, ate a great many vitamins, and drank two liters of green tea. She didn't touch alcohol or cigarettes. "I would like to outlive my own children," she'd said to a Financial Times reporter in an interview in 1997. But as it turned out, the conception, carrying, birthing, and rearing of children were not activities that interested her much.
When Gabriel sat down with her for his interview at the Calloway Group's office in Weehawken, she stared at him and said nothing. He held back too. He had already decided to say as little as possible. Better to lure her out. Oscar Velazquez—Calloway's analyst for the wealthier Latin American countries, and Gabriel's first interviewer—had said she was thirty-seven, which would make her ten years Gabriel's senior, but she looked like a child. Even in her austere gunmetal gray suit she looked juvenile: the most solemn and ponderous adolescent on the planet, but an adolescent nonetheless.
After a while, when Gabriel said nothing, she'd nodded once and said, "You would be Oscar's counterpart in the poorer countries. We like you because you're like Oscar: you know the places, you know people, you speak Spanish, and you even sort of look like a native." She enumerated his qualities very matter-of-factly, including the part about his ethnicity. "Since I came to Calloway," Priya said, "I have steered clear of what I call the cucarachas, those chronically dysfunctional Latin American countries like Guatemala, Panama, et cetera." She inhaled deeply, noisily, through her nose, exhaled slowly and quietly through her mouth. She said, "Our default position will continue to be zero involvement with them, but we need to pay attention, which is why we're creating this position. We can't afford to miss anything."
"I understand," he said. He waited, but she didn't elaborate. She had the corner office, and the views across the Hudson to lower Manhattan were postcard-ready. She also had two large wide-screen LCD monitors mounted on the wall like art running a colorful array of stats from Bloomberg. But she never took her eyes off Gabriel, so he avoided looking at the views and tried instead to match her gaze. She did not seem a particularly mysterious person. She exhibited above all a surgical focus. So while she could address whatever problem sat directly in front of her, multitasking would be difficult, and this, he realized, was the source of her awkwardness, because conversations require a certain talent for juggling.
Hedge funds had traditionally played the numbers from a safe distance, but they had also found that there were huge surprises occasionally, which was why it was theoretically worth it to Calloway to spend a few million in wages and travel expenses every year to have half a dozen analysts out in the world, keeping an eye on things. He waited for her to continue, but when she didn't say anything, he resuscitated the conversation. "So, I'll research the cucarachas?"
"Yes," she said and picked up her line of thought. "Oscar has his hands full with Brazil, Argentina, and so on, so you'll baby-sit the basket cases. There's not much action there, but that's life. Meanwhile, I stay here and go over the numbers with our quant for Latin America, Paul. You should meet him, but I think he just went down to the pier. He goes there twice a day to do a thousand jumping jacks."
Gabriel nodded. "A thousand jumping jacks?"
"Yes, he's concerned about his heart. It's a sedentary life."
"Right. Better safe than sorry."
"Not really. Paul's an idiot." Her mouth twitched as if she was trying to smile, but her muscles couldn't manage it and instead made the gesture of someone who was famished and anticipating food. Gabriel bit his lower lip and laced his fingers together in his lap. He did not let his gaze wander, despite an overwhelming urge to look away. It had been sarcasm, of course. Paul was not an idiot. A quant's analytical powers were expected to be cripplingly powerful. It was one of the few jobs for which a dash of autism was considered a plus.
Priya—who was, it seemed, something of a quant herself—straightened her back, sucked in her cheeks, twisted her head in one direction, then the other, and relaxed. She looked at Gabriel for a while, and when he didn't speak, she sighed as though already exasperated. "Listen," she said, "we like you because you seem kind of cunning, and, after reading your work, we think you might have a talent for reading people. Why do you want to work for us?"
He did not have an answer ready. To buy time, he broke eye contact and looked across the river at lower Manhattan. They were still scooping out the ground down there, but everyone knew that no more bodies would be found; there was nothing left but a giant ragged hole. Gabriel looked back at her and, for lack of a better position, told the truth. He said, "I want to make a shitload of money for a while."
She nodded, unsurprised. She seemed to want him to say more, so he added, "I'd like to retire at forty."
"If you manage to keep your job, that shouldn't be a problem." She glanced at the Bloomberg screens and he thought she almost smiled. Then she looked back at him. "So where do you see Mexican interest rates in a year?"
The millionaire thing hadn't interested Gabriel during high school, when his bright yellow Sony Walkman was full of punk rock, and it hadn't meant much to him when he was in college either, where he manned a soft-serve ice cream stand on campus for fifteen hours a week. It didn't really mean much then that he was broke, because everyone was broke. But five years of scraping by in New York City was another thing. Being young and well-educated and destitute in the city had a way of sharpening a person's desires. Demonstrations, overt and implied, of the advantages of having heaps of money were so common that they ceased to register. So the feeling of wanting matured until what had been straightforward professional ambition became tinged by a hint of avarice. Not that Gabriel was, or ever had been, a greedy person; but money, in general—the plain and unassailable acts of acquiring and spending it—had turned out to occupy a more important role in adulthood than he'd expected. The issue finally wasn't that he wanted to be rich, per se, but that he wanted to be done with so much wanting. It was a feedback loop, and the only way out was deeper in: he needed to have enough money to be done with the issue of money forever.
And though he wished it weren't so, once certain college buddies started buying giant condos in the Meatpacking District and kicking up their midnight blue Prada sneakers on their burnished leather ottomans, he did feel a many-pronged discontent. The shame did not temper the envy; it just made it queasy. Of course, they were all privileged, spectacularly so, on the global level. But this was not a global situation. It was the United States, where he had been born and seemed likely to remain in the bland band of the upper-middle class.
It wasn't lost on him that each one of his young and newly rich friends, all of whom had been dateless for years, was now constantly anchored to the lithe arm of a woman so beautiful that her beauty itself seemed monstrous. Those friends started to look different too. They wore pointy black shoes, sunglasses on cloudy days. At Sunday brunch, they ordered off the menu, made easy banter with the waiters, and were altogether more confident and self-assured than anyone their age had a right to be. It was as if some irksome and never fully identified existential question that still nagged the rest of them had been finally and completely resolved for those few.
So there was, in the end, no question about whether Gabriel would take the job at Calloway. The question literally never presented itself to him. After Gabriel's interview with Priya, Oscar handed him a binder full of legal disclosures and recommended that he go through the paperwork with his lawyer before signing.
Gabriel didn't have a lawyer and didn't want to hire one, couldn't really afford one. Anyway, he didn't want to hear about the fine print. So he signed and initialed the papers while sitting on the PATH train back to New York from Weehawken.
Excerpted from A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism by Peter Mountford. Copyright 2011 by Peter Mountford. Excerpted by permission of Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.