Schmooze institutional investors, harangue drag-butt executives, negotiate megabuck deals. These are the things that fill the lives of most private equity types, but not Christian Gillette's. Gillette, the new head of elite Everest Capital, spends time dodging assassins.
In Stephen Frey's new novel, The Chairman (Ballantine Books, $21.95), poor Gillette--well, not poor in the bank account sense--finds almost everybody is out to get him. His least rabid enemies merely wish to see him canned. Others want to see him dead. At his boss' funeral, somebody blows up Gillette's limo before he can get into it. Then a wildly shooting gunman traps him in a gas station restroom. Later, cruising in his Lincoln Town Car on Park Avenue, Gillette almost takes another bullet. If he's not careful, he'll end up like his boss, whose drowning wasn't an, er, accident.
The reason these antagonists want Gillette dispatched: lust for his power and treasure. As Everest's chairman, he controls 27 companies and is in the same league as Henry Kravis and Thomas Lee. In Mel Brooks' immortal words, "It's good to be the king." Part of the fun in this book is that a paranoiac existence doesn't stop Gillette from enjoying the fine life of a financier, surrounded by sumptuous luxury, brown-nosing dignitaries and libidinous women. Too bad one of these ladies comes after him with a knife.
The Chairman, Frey's tenth novel, is his best. As always, he provides twists galore, great action and crisp dialogue. But what he excels at is enriching his stories with financial lore. The most enticingsuspense tales give readers insights into a high-stakes profession, whether it's defense lawyer (John Grisham), forensic pathologist (Patricia Cornwell) or homicide detective (Michael Connelly). Financial thrillers, however, haven't enjoyed the popularity of legal, medical or cop novels. Too few writers can accurately convey the drama of markets. Who could make buying an oil company fascinating?
Frey can. With his lively writing and cynical humor, this author, a partner in a private equity firm, is a captivat-ing tour guide to a Wall Street wonderland of greed, folly and deceit whose rules seem lifted from Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary. Here's how Frey defines "price": "Everyone has one; you just have to find it. Then be willing to pay it." We learn that you negotiate an acquisition by pretending not to want the prize very much. If selling a company, never open the bidding, as that reveals your cards. And should your high-risk deals all blow up, Frey tells us, you and your partners must "scatter for places where English is rarely spoken."
He archly conveys the addictive appeal of the dealster world by making the following observation about a suc-cessful player who, when he hits 40, decides to quit the game to spend more time with the family: "After about three months, you find they aren't really that interesting. Or, worse, they don't find you very interesting."
Gillette is Frey's first continuing hero (we're told on the dust jacket), meaning he'll be the central figure in fu-ture outings. Yet aside from his athletic abilities and financial acumen, Gillette has little in common with past protago-nists. These typically have been scrappy working class strivers pitted against the snooty Ivy Leaguers peopling the in-vestment world.
Gillette, brought up with money, is a bit of a snob himself. Right after his ascension to chairman, he haughtily corrects a friend who calls him "Chris": "Ben, from now on, call me Christian." A master manipulator who views truth as a commodity to be rationed, Gillette does one charitable deed: He moves an impoverished Latino family out of the slums and into a McMansion. But it later turns out that he exacts a price:He uses the family as his private goon squad to rough up his foes.
Why should we root for such an unsporting fellow? Because in the end he does well by the few good folks left. And because, like Ian Fleming's antihero, James Bond (the mean-spirited book version, not the amusing movie one), Gillette engages us with his enviable panache and awesome courage. Gillette's hobby is to visit pool halls solo in dan-gerous neighborhoods and, with no cash in his pocket, challenge desperados to big-dollar games. He wins every time.