People read novels for two major reasons: for a good yarn, first and foremost, but also to be immersed in a world that's different from the one they occupy -- not just to learn about how it works, but to feel it, to experience its dramas and to know the characters who occupy it. In that latter way, it's hard to think of a more appropriate time to write a novel like Cortright McMeel's Short, a story that peers behind the curtain of high-power stock-trading, a world that -- with recent revelations of high-risk investment schemes, billion-dollar government bailouts and too-big-to-fail conglomerates -- almost everyone has an opinion on, but few people know anything about.
And most of those opinions are not flattering. The economy's still in the shitter, and it's convenient and probably fairly accurate to blame the faceless minions of Wall Street -- folks, as Short's book jacket points out, "inhabit a world of intense stress, unbelievable gluttony, and the consequences of making and losing tens of millions of dollars in a single day."
McMeel's task, then, is to humanize these popular villains, to make them sympathetic enough that we can relate to them.
The overall plot of the book centers around a character named Gallagher, who must choose between following the prudent practices of his mentor Andrews, or following "the Ghost," a new boss who pushes the ethical envelope. In Chapter 18, titled "Hutch Goes Home," we find the Ghost in the midst of a round of firings, showing veteran traders the door with mirthless efficiency. The traders -- including one named Hutch, from whose perspective the chapter is mostly narrated -- are waiting to see if their name will be called.
Around the last third of the chapter, Hutch feels "a shock of pain run down his arm. Then his chest tightened up." The heart attack that follows sets up the two best -- and most revealing -- paragraphs of the chapter:
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His last thought before the light flooded his eyes was the vision of "The Rumble in the Jungle" poster in his bedroom, of George Foreman hunched down tight mid bob and weave, ducking one of Ali's lighting-fast jabs, a look of determination, pain and rage in his swollen face as he struggled in vain against a greater fighter.
The Colonel was over at the printer picking up his positions report and was walking back to his desk when he came across Hutch on the ground clutching his elbow with a pained look on his face. Thinking Hutch was drunk and had banged his elbow when he slid out of his chair, the Colonel stepped over Hutch's body before continuing to his desk.
While the rest of the narration in the chapter is a mostly no-frills play-by-play (although there's one pretty funny anecdote about a CEO accidentally pissing on his own pant legs in a helicopter), the first paragraph above is really McMeel's shining moment in this chapter, a beautifully rendered visual metaphor that speaks as much about the character of Hutch (a "Rumble in the Jungle" poster in a grown man's bedroom?) as it does about the relationship between his fellow traders and his boss. Coupled with the second paragraph -- if I might just continue the fight metaphor here -- it's a one-two punch that drives home the alienation, self-involvement and ruthless brinksmanship of the profession. And humanizes it.
There are other bright spots as well -- McMeel's jargon-heavy dialogue, particularly when it's coming from traders berating each other, is smart, snappy and spot-on -- and if McMeel's get-the-job-done narration occasionally lacks flair to the point of blandness, the action is interesting enough that it doesn't have to blow you over. In this case, the world and the story pull weight enough just to accomplish the task.
Interested? You can meet McMeel Saturday at 7 p.m. when he discusses and reads from Short at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop at evengallery 910arts, 910 Santa Fe Drive. It's free to attend. For more information, go to www.lighthousewriters.org.