SET IN BOLIVIA AMID THE UNCERTAINTY of the first weeks of Evo Morales's presidency in late 2005, Peter Mountford's compulsively readable first novel is a book about money. A Young Man's Guide is a bildungsroman in reverse, tracing the psychic dissolution of the somewhat-likeable protagonist Gabriel de Boya from his first, broke years in New York after graduating from Brown to the cocooned state of permanent transience he achieves as a hedge fund manager. Like Balzac's Lucien de Rubempre, Gabriel is at once highly nuanced and an allegorical figure. No better or worse than anyone else, he's just trying to get by in a world that's systemically compromised.
While Mountford, a former financial analyst, is highly informed and informative about the macroeconomic game theories that order the world and color the most intimate parts of our lives, it is his novel's premise that the sweeping life-force of capital might animate a personal narrative that is truly radical. As he said in an interview with Vanessa Hua for the Los Angeles Review of Books back in June:
Finance and economics clearly play an important role in contemporary history ... . But if you're aiming to write "serious" literature there's a tendency to write about neurotic suburbanites or upper-middle class dilettantes. That stuff doesn't interest me at all.
Conceived during his exiled Chilean mother's brief student years in Moscow, Gabriel senses at an early age that the world is "more complex" than his old-school leftist, Nation- and Mother Jones-contributing mother might have it. Growing up in the oasis of upper-middle class life near Pomona College where his mom is a tenured anthropologist, Gabriel's mixed parentage makes him adept, from his earliest years, at navigating cultural conundrums. But to where? In the end, Gabriel's adherence to the twenty-first century truism that "the world is complex" proves just as useless as his mother's primitive faith in ideology.
When Gabriel accepts a job as regional analyst for the Calloway Group, a hedge fund notorious for its feral ruthlessness, he plans to keep the job just until he has "enough money to be done with the issue of money forever." Five years after graduation, his former classmates who took Wall Street jobs have entered the world of adulthood while he languishes as an online business reporter. Their opulent lofts and celebrity parties leave him trapped in a low-grade feedback loop of desire, moving between his dumpy Greenpoint apartment and office cubicle. As Mountford writes, "money, in general — the plain and unassailable acts of acquiring it and spending it — had turned out to occupy a more important role in adulthood than he'd expected." All Gabriel wants is to be free from want, so when an opportunity arises to move to Bolivia for the Calloway Group and, with share options and performance bonuses, hypothetically earn millions, he jumps at it. He aces the interview; when his future boss Priya asks him why he wants to work for the Group, he replies: "I want to make a shitload of money for awhile."
Gabriel arrives in La Paz on the eve of Marxist President Evo Morales's election. Bilingual and bicultural, he is at home...