Michael M. Thomas’s “Fixers” isn’t just an audacious financial thriller, it’s also, even primarily, a meditation on values. The novel juxtaposes traditional ideals of loyalty, service, patriotism and noblesse oblige against the relentless, pathological venality of contemporary Wall Street, where, as Thomas’s narrator observes, “legality is the sole animating principle of morality.”
More dramatically, “Fixers” reveals the purported financial shenanigans that made possible the 2008 election of our current president and the real reasons the federal government bailed out the banks and investment groups that caused the global financial crisis of that same year. As Thomas says in his acknowledgments, the book “imagines connections between known sets of facts that add up to an alternative, plausible interpretation and explanation of the financial crisis and its aftermath.” Call it a fantasy, then, but is it? Besides being a best-selling novelist, Thomas is also a former partner at Lehman Brothers. His initial premise certainly seems believable:
“The exercise of power in America today is almost entirely an insider’s game that completely shuts out 99.9 percent of the population, which is never made truly privy to the backstage dealings that decide matters of great pith and moment — which in this great, shining republic generally run to the issue of who is to get what and for how much, with the bulk of the money coming from the full faith and credit of the American taxpayer. We groundlings are never told what was actually, exactly said and agreed, as opposed to what They — with a capital T — and their stooges in the media tell us. You might say that I intend to bridge the gap between the true facts of the matter and what the public will have been told.”
That “I,” by the way, is 46-year-old Chauncey Arlington Suydam III, a high-end arts adviser who helps institutions find donors to underwrite operas, exhibitions and other expensive cultural events. Chauncey, as his name suggests, was brought up in the WASP establishment — banker father, education at Groton and Yale, membership in Skull and Bones, a few years in the CIA, where he specialized in covert financial operations. While deeply devoted to the vanishing ideals of the old-money, Yankee ascendancy, he’s nonetheless a man with few illusions:
“The key to Wall Street is that these people really don’t give a damn about what anyone other than peers and competitors think and their lawyers and accountants tell them. . . . That said, you also need to consider that they’ve managed to work things out so that what they do, overpaid though it may be, has become essential to the working of the world. Life runs on fossil fuels and credit.”
One morning in mid-February of 2007, Chauncey is summoned to a breakfast meeting by his old CIA boss, Leon Mankoff. Now the head of the giant investment bank Struther Strauss, known as STST, Mankoff explains that he’s worried about the future. He foresees “every kind of computer-driven financial calamity: credit freeze, bank insolvencies, a foreclosure pandemic, a liquidity crisis, accounting scandals, balance sheet implosions, a few big firms driven to the wall, total breakdown of trust between institutions” and more. “Something needs to be done,” he tells Chauncey — and right now. “I want you to fix next year’s presidential election for me.”
Mankoff believes that the election of Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate, would be a disaster for Wall Street. If the crisis comes, only Uncle Sam will have pockets deep enough to fund a bailout. But Clinton, both egregiously ambitious and untrustworthy in Mankoff’s view, might see political fodder in attacking rather than assisting the Street. However, there’s this other guy, a young senator from Illinois. He’s charismatic but lacks the serious money to mount an effective challenge to Clinton. Still, that could change if his campaign were suddenly enriched by, say, $75 million. Just for starters, of course.
Despite a few qualms, Chauncey soon finds himself flying to California, where he “accidentally” bumps into the senator’s chief adviser during a think-tank weekend at Bohemian Grove. While giving the pol a ride back to Chicago in a private jet, Chauncey dangles Mankoff’s $75 million carrot, which he promises to deliver in ways that won’t draw attention to its true origins. The candidate — referred to only as Our Guy or OG — doesn’t need to know a thing. In return, Mankoff simply wants three particular people appointed to positions high up in the new administration.
“Fixers” takes the form of Chauncey’s laptop diary, as we follow him through years of secret machinations, culminating in a lot of second thoughts. Along the way, we meet the gossipy Lucia, who runs public relations for STST, legendary Merlin Gerritt (obviously based on Warren Buffett), muckraking reporter Marina Hochster and Washington insider Ian Spass (his last name means “joke” in German). Best of all, the San Calisto gang — a quartet of retired, old-school brokers — provides a kind of Greek chorus to the novel. “If there’s one philosophical point they’re agreed on,” says Chauncey of the group, “it’s that back in their day, the work was about building: raising money for new companies, new factories and stores, new processes. Today it’s mainly about extracting — whether what’s under the microscope is a company being hollowed out financially in a leveraged buyout, or practically everything in the magic slice-and-dice world of securitization.”
Most of the impending financial crisis, Chauncey realizes, grew out of the 1999 gutting of the protective regulations of the Glass-Steagall Act, coupled with the complex, interconnectivity of modern investments. One bad apple can make everyone sick. Of course, the cardinal principle of the Street remains invariable: “It’s always the other person’s fault.” Such cynical observations are among the many pleasures of Thomas’s book: “Complexity is the first refuge of the scoundrel”; “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” Chauncey himself reminds us of Adlai Stevenson’s great one-liner: “Here’s the conclusion on which I base my facts.”
As “Fixers” progresses, the Mankoff plan initially seems to be working perfectly — and then complications, some of them personal, lead Chauncey to reflect on what he’s wrought.
I won’t reveal too much more but do want to stress the novel’s breezy, engaging style, one that can move effortlessly from explaining junk bonds and derivatives to quoting Gibbon and making wisecracks. One Wall Street legend, Chauncey tells us, was the “sort of fellow, you saw him in the locker room, you took your wallet into the shower with you.” Slick spin-doctoring, he notes, readily transferred responsibility for the mortgage crisis to Uncle Sam and the borrowers. “The mortgage promoters, lenders, and packagers were just poor saps, mere putty in the hands of indigents and incompetent, crypto-socialist bureaucrats.”
“Fixers” is, in the end, an exhilarating book to read and a depressing one to think about. A guilt-ridden Chauncey increasingly mourns the principles and traditions upheld by a dying WASP aristocracy. High standards in business practice, service to our country, a truly useful life — can such ideals, he wonders, be reawakened in a culture that so zealously worships Mammon and grotesquely rewards cheats and scam artists? You tell me.
Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
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By Michael M. Thomas
Melville House. 420 pp. $26.95