It is 1929, and someone is embezzling money from the Puritan Bank and Trust Co. of Riverside, Mass. In fact, four people are embezzling -- separately, without any one of them knowing what the others are up to. The embezzlers include two tellers, the treasurer and the president of the bank. Each, for a different reason, is trying to become very rich by investing the embezzled cash in the stock market.
But remember, this is 1929, and while prices of stocks are going up and up, they will eventually plunge -- a fact of which the embezzlers, of course, are unaware.
It's not a bad premise for a slick novel, and if the author, Max Ehrlich, knew how to draw realistic characters and could wean himself of cliches, he might have written a clever, worthwhile book. Unfortunately, Ehrlich is so ham-fisted that the result of his efforts, "The Big Boys," hardly bears comment. Except for one thing: The book is a perfect example of how poorly novelists handle some of the richest material around -- the world of business. For the past couple of centuries, novelists have handled business themes with glossy superficiality (Arthur Hailey), ponderous allegory (Ayn Rand), or, most frequently of all, bitter animosity (Balzac, Dickens, you name it).
Ehrlich, who has written 13 other novels, the best-known being "The Reincarnation of Peter Proud," hails from the bitter animosity school. Almost every character in the book is motivated by a single emotion: greed.
But, since the Puritan Bank and Trust is a little bank, and since the four embezzlers are small fry, Ehrlich argues that the greed is not their responsibility. They got the idea from "the big boys" -- the financiers "who manipulated the market and ruled Wall Street . . . They arranged the market to suit themselves. As an investor, you tried to find out what they were doing and do likewise . . . Wall Street was flooded with rumors daily. The Big Boys were selling Fisk Rubber. They were buying Radio. They were buying Diamond Match and selling Atlas Tack at its high. And so on. Follow suit and ride the gravy train."
So, thought Ehrlich's embezzlers, if the big boys are making out so well by being avaricious manipulators, we can do the same.
Now, I hold no brief for the big boys -- whom Ehrlich identifies as Thomas Lamont of J. P. Morgan, Albert H. Wiggin of Chase, John J. Raskob of General Motors, and a fictional character of two -- but there's more to finance than greed. Even the slickest commercial novelist has one obligation: to tell his readers what makes people behave the way they do. In this, Ehrlich fails miserably.
As an example, consider the author's description of the reaction of one of the big boys to the news that the October crash has totally wiped him out:
"Now he, C. F. Bennett, one of the Big Boys, had become a Little Boy. All in the space of just a few days. His lifetime savings were gone, and he had been just as badly hurt as his smallest subscriber. Suddenly he was a poor man. He had known poverty, and known what it was like. It was something he hated as much as everybody else. Poverty was the essence of inconvenience."
Inconvenience! Being poor was inconvenient; therefore, six pages later, Bennett jumps out of his office window. It apparently never occurs to Ehrlich that the reason men like Bennett committed suicide in 1929 was shame, the unbearable embarrassment of facing their families and friends without money to protect them. Or perhaps, having defined themselves by their money ("I'm worth two million"), they decided that, if their wealth disappeared, they should disappear, too. Or perhaps, feeling intense guilt at making money so easily, they felt that the crash exposed their crime and that death was proper punishment.
But Ehrlich finds inconvenience a satisfactory explanation. Why? Because Ehrlich, like most novelists of the bitter animosity school, simply has no truck with businessmen. He's not the least bit interested in what makes them tick, but he's delighted to hold them up for ridicule. I was reminded of a little study called "The View From Sunset Boulevard" (Basic Books, 1979), in which Ben Stein examined the way TV writers portrayed businessmen:
"In TV comedies, businessmen play several different roles, all highly unflattering. Often they are con men. Appearing unannounced, they promise money-starved regular characters a way out of poverty. Then, having bilked our loveable favorites, they disappear without a trace. . . . But businessmen are positively glorified on sitcoms compared to their appearance in adventure shows. There, they are almost always criminals in disguise -- and murderers more likely than not. Behind the three-piece suit, the inevitable badge of crime, lurks the heart of a Bluebeard."
TV writers -- and novelists -- certainlay don't have to portray businessmen sympathetically. But it would be a good deal more enlightening for their audiences if they turned businessmen into real people, who love and fear and occasionally laugh -- who don't just count their money and jump out of windows.