The Inner Lives of Powerful Men: The Dismal Science

02/26/2014 4:00 AM |

The Dismal Science
By Peter Mountford
(Tin House Books)

This novelist’s first book, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, zoomed in on a player in the economic crises of the aughts, an ambitious young hedge fund employee with dollar signs in his eyes who negotiated his way through the ethics of getting his. In his new novel, Mountford shifts the focus to a protagonist from the same social strata who’s playing the game in reverse: Vincenzo D’Orsi, an economist at the World Bank, throws his job security and financial future in jeopardy with a spontaneous decision seemingly rooted in principle.

The greatest strength of Mountford’s debut novel is its nuanced, often sympathetic approach to a six-figure-salary protagonist with a seemingly ruthless lust for wealth. He’s similarly even-handed with Vincenzo’s motives. While some of the crunchier people he runs across (a young anti-globalist protest leader, his Oberlin-alum daughter) wish to pin a medal of altruism on him, and a lesser writer might have made this a hero’s journey of a corporate bad guy turned good, Mountford fashions something truer. Vincenzo is more realistic and relatable than the mythic political hero others wish he were—or the more stock character we might have expected.

Mountford’s stories live—and thrive—in ethical gray areas. His characters constantly compromise some part of their lives to leave room for another: love for work, integrity for success, pragmatism for principled conviction. The Dismal Science forms new iterations of these conflicts; against the backdrop of the World Bank and its role in Latin America, the characters’ struggles are a metaphor for the larger moral minefield unfolding around them.

A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism filled in a gap in fiction by humanizing one of the ubiquitous Wall Street figures dominating headlines anonymously. With The Dismal Science, he goes deeper by presenting an even more introspective character whose high-profile political maneuvers come with a psychological backstory. Here’s hoping that Mountford will continue to offer up these imaginings of the inner lives of powerful men, which enrich the contemporary conversation.