Lives Ultimately Misspent

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By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Thursday, October 14, 2004

HUMAN CAPITAL

By Stephen Amidon

Farrar Straus Giroux. 375 pp. $24

In this smart, fast-moving novel, Stephen Amidon serves up suburbia on a platter, sliced and diced into bits and pieces. If "Jaws" made you steer clear of the water, "Human Capital" will keep you at a long arm's length from places like Totten Crossing, the New England town "just beyond the commuter belt" of an unnamed city where "Human Capital" is set. It's populated by people who are mostly "young and well-to-do, busy with home improvement schemes and youth sports," ratcheting the real estate market up and up and up, leaving the town's old-timers -- the people who were there before the boom, when it was still a small town -- eating the exhaust fumes from their BMWs and Volvos.

One of those old-timers is a fortyish real estate agent named Drew Hagel, of Hagel & Son, he being the son. His father built the business, and for three decades it earned a steady, predictable, comfortable income. But Drew, distracted by a painful divorce that left him with sole custody of his young daughter, "had been sleepwalking" while the moneyed class poured into town at the end of the 20th century and was blindsided by the Property Management Group, "four women on the cusp of middle age who claimed that they were going to 'bring modern sales techniques' to the area" and soon enough cornered the market, leaving Drew with little except "cheap bungalows and rickety frame houses" to sell or rent.

That's hardly the worst of it. Dazzled by the money boys, eager to be accepted by them, he buys into a hedge fund operated by a neighbor, Quint Manning, with whom he plays tennis, cobbling together a quarter-million dollars by leveraging the escrow on the old Hagel family house in what is still the best part of town and now the richest. Now his banker is leaning on him for payments against the loan, and he can't make them. What he doesn't know is that the hedge fund is plunging. His $250,000 is worth a fraction of that, rather than the $360,000 he'd been assured it would balloon to: "Forty-four percent. A hundred and ten thousand dollars of clean and absolute profit."

Dream on. Quint is in trouble: "The fund was having its first major crisis since he'd started it eight years earlier. They were taking big hits on their capital reserves. He was laying off nearly a third of his staff. Some investors were being told their money was going to have to be locked up for another year, and even then there was no guarantee they wouldn't lose everything." But nobody has told Drew a thing, and when he approaches Quint about getting his money back -- just his investment, no earnings -- he's hung out to dry. The boom is over. Everybody is in trouble.

It is against this background that the plot of this complex, nuanced novel takes place. Though Drew and Quint have little in common, their children are close friends. Drew's daughter, Shannon, and Quint's son, Jamie, seniors at the local private school, haven't just gone steady, they've gone All the Way, of which their parents are unaware. Now things have cooled between them, not least because Jamie's response to his father's obsessive insistence on "complete control" is to get drunk, "always trying to be the boy his father wanted him to be, then drinking himself stupid when he understood it would never happen."

When Jamie fails to win a top prize awarded to graduating seniors, his sense of failure intensifies. He goes to a graduation party and gets not just drunk but blotto. Dire consequences follow. Various people -- his parents, Shannon's father and stepmother, a limo driver named David and his nephew, Ian -- are drawn into an awful concatenation of suspicion, uncertainty and suspense that appears to lead nowhere except disaster for all. The boom has gone bust with a vengeance.

Amidon moves it all along swiftly and skillfully. He has a tendency to back and fill, slipping into flashbacks when they're least expected, but the reader is able to change gears as he does. His characters are interesting and sympathetic and very real. Amidon is kind to them when they deserve kindness, yet he's clinical about their shortcomings and weaknesses. But the best things about "Human Capital" derive from his skills as a reporter and social commentator. He has learned a great deal about a great many things -- hedge funds, real estate, the executive limo business, school fundraising, you name it -- and this knowledge embeds the novel in the real world of middle- and upper-middle-class America with an authenticity that few contemporary novels achieve, embedded as they so often are in their own authors' psyches.

Amidon wrote this novel after living in England for a decade and a half -- he now lives in Massachusetts -- and apparently found returning to his native country a real eye-opener. During his absence things went over the top. These were the Roaring Nineties, and money was everywhere, along with its consequences: indulgent, controlling parents and spoiled manipulative kids. Amidon gets them dead-on:

"The parents . . . forced their kids to be perfect students and then told them that the lesson on offer was that you'd better win. If you had to lie and cheat, then you lied and you cheated, but don't worry, Mom and Dad would scramble along after you to clean up the mess. . . . The news was full of kids who were breaking any rule that stood in their way, aided by their folks and the [slick lawyers] of the world. Only in Jamie's case he couldn't even confide in his parents, since he knew his father would turn him in. But the equation was still the same. Get away with it. You'd have to be stupid not to know this. And kids today were anything but stupid. You just had to look at the test scores."

And:

"Shannon saw it every day, the way her classmates manipulated adults with syndromes and conditions that were nothing more than camouflage for laziness and selfishness. Tatum Shapiro, for instance, would use her weight to blackmail her parents, shedding pounds after every confrontation, then regaining them when things broke her way. During the SATs a clear minority of students had downed pencils at the end of regulation while the rest beavered on, armed with permission from their family doctors, as if time could put in what nature left out. Most days the late-morning line outside the school nurse's office for pill distribution snaked around the corner. Meanwhile, the truly wasted kids kept out of sight, huddling in their rooms, music turned up and smoke leaking from their nostrils, their minds full of things that Shannon's classmates wouldn't understand in a million years."

It's an "absurd system, encouraging kids to wallow in self-pity when they should be working out their own problems," and Amidon nails it. As a chronicler of the suburbs he isn't up there with John Cheever, but if there's anyone writing about them now with the clarity, insight and honesty that he brings to the task, I'm unaware of it. "Human Capital" is terrific.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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