The Dismal Science: A Novelby Peter Mountford
Mountford's follow up to A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism is at once a cogent political drama and an acute meditation on the fragile nature of identity.
he Dismal Science tells of a middle-aged vice president at the World Bank, Vincenzo D’Orsi, who publicly quits his job over a seemingly minor argument with a colleague. A scandal inevitably ensues,
Mountford's follow up to A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism is at once a cogent political drama and an acute meditation on the fragile nature of identity.
he Dismal Science tells of a middle-aged vice president at the World Bank, Vincenzo D’Orsi, who publicly quits his job over a seemingly minor argument with a colleague. A scandal inevitably ensues, and he systematically burns every bridge to his former life. After abandoning his career, Vincenzo, a recent widower, is at a complete loss as to what to do with himself. The story follows his efforts to rebuild his identity without a vocation or the company of his wife. An exploration of the fragile nature of identity, The Dismal Science reveals the terrifying speed with which a person’s sense of self can be annihilated. It is at once a study of a man attempting to apply his reason to the muddle of life and a book about how that same ostensible rationality, and the mathematics of finance in particular, operateswith similarly dubious resultsin our world.
Fans of Louis Begley’s About Schmidt and other thoughtfully written novels about the male midlife crisis will appreciate Mountford’s second novel (after A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism). Here he has traded in his “young man” for an older one: 54-year-old Vincenzo D’Orsi, a vice president at the World Bank. A widower with an adult daughter who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. (with all the requisite piercings and views on the geopolitical scene that run counter to her father’s), Vincenzo lives quietly in Bethesda, Md.—until the day that he makes an unpopular pronouncement at work regarding the new government in Bolivia. Before you can say John Maynard Keynes, Vincenzo finds himself taking early retirement and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. Should he move to New York and go to work for Lehman Brothers? Join a think tank? Go to Bolivia and make a speech? He gets advice on the subject from his daughter; his best friend, Walter (a Washington Post columnist); his attractive Bolivian press liaison, Lenka; and a mysterious black man, Ben, who may or may not work for the CIA. How Vincenzo manages to navigate this new life without nets forms the emotional core of the novel, which intelligently explores his roiled inner life. In the end, Mountford has written a distinctively entertaining novel that illuminates the spiritual odyssey of a contemporary Dodsworth. (Feb.)
"The Dismal Science by Peter Mountford. This guy is managing to make economics and the World Bank something I don't just try and force myself to read about in The New York Times so that I can remain knowledgeable about the state of the world. GOD FORBID."
"Mountford has written a distinctively entertaining novel that illuminates the spiritual odyssey of a contemporary Dodsworth."
Starred Publishers Weekly
"Peter Mountford’s fierce imagination and intelligence drive The Dismal Science. D’Orsi is a mesmerizing character. His wrecking-ball choices and the truth that there are no easy answers make him utterly human. The portrait of his interior life, his struggles to figure out a way forward, above all his memories of his 25-year marriagethe evolution from love to the doldrums of work and parenthood, replete with affairs, then back to love before his wife’s untimely deathall of this is poignantly real and the loss acutely felt."
New York Times Book Review
"[T]his fiercely intelligent second novel from Peter Mountford. . .is far less interested in capitalism and wealth, than it is in the economy of human relationshipsthe ones we have with each other and the ones we maintain with ourselves."
"Mountford pulls off impressive feats of empathy: he creates compelling characters out of self-interested economists, and makes the nuances of financial policythe "dismal science" of the book's titleaccessible to lay readers."
"A novel about identity, rationality and starting over, Mountford's book follows a former VP at the World Bank as he tries to rebuild his life following a series of scandals and losses."
Time Out Chicago
"Mountford’s wry look at middle-aged identity and transition is a sardonic yet sobering portrait of what happens when a man living a life too narrowly becomes confounded when confronted with too many choices."
"As in Ian McEwan's Atonement, Mountford shows how the repercussions of a single, small decision can slowly, deeply and truly change people. The Dismal Science is a classic novel of ideas for our time and our world of economics, wealth and greed."
"A simmering new novel about the underside of global finance . . . . [The Dismal Science's] exploration of a man who can't seem to find his way out of darkness partly of his own making has a beauty that is as delicate as the fleeting hope in Vincenzo's story."
"The Dismal Science is a phenomenal book."
"Forget the brainy financial prognostications of Don DeLillo; in Mountford’s stories, capitalism hits you in the gut. Bankers and novelists unite!"
"Mountford’s stories liveand thrivein 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."
"Mountford's elegant wit makes this novel something of a romp. . .The prose of The Dismal Science is sharp and clever, it has the sound of a cynical insider confiding secrets."
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“The Dismal Science is exuberant art, a deep, moving comedy about grief, guilt, and the heart's geopolitics. Mountford writes with soul and style and makes the plight of his protagonist count.”
Sam Lipsyte, New York Times bestselling author of The Ask
"Quietly wrenching, sharply drawn and completely un-put-downable. With The Dismal Science, Peter Mountford asserts himself as our generation’s most significant business-world ombudsman. A deft and unflinching exponent of the human side of a polarizing world few of us actually understand."
Tea Obreht, New York Times bestselling author of The Tiger's Wife
“In his fiercely intelligent second novel (after A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism), Mountford examines, with wry humor and sympathy leavened with a realistic accounting of Vincenzo d’Orsi’s flaws and failings, the repercussions of a decision made in haste andperhapsregretted at leisure. Or not regretted. Who could have ever predicted that an economist at the World Bank could be such a terrific main character? I absolutely loved The Dismal Science."
Nancy Pearl, NPR commentator and author of the Book Lust series
"Peter Mountford's elegantly written The Dismal Sciencean advance on his superb first novelis an extremely impressive imagining by a relatively young writer into a relatively old man's life. It also is a brilliant extrapolation of the economist's 'dismal science' into a metaphor for the difficult fate of any living, breathing, dying human being."
David Shields, New York Times bestselling of The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead
“The Dismal Science is a beautiful novel: stark, powerful, and life-affirming. Vincenzo’s haunting journey will stay with me for a very, very long time.”
Garth Stein, New York Times bestselling author of The Art of Racing in the Rain
REVIEWS AND PRAISE FOR A YOUNG MAN’S GUIDE TO LATE CAPITALISM
"Peter Mountford’s striking debut novel is a smart and entertaining book. Set near the peak of the financial bubble in 2005, the book charts the story of a young financial journalist, Gabriel de Boya, recently hired as an analyst for a notoriously unscrupulous hedge fund. Gabriel’s first mission is a test of his abilities: go to Bolivia and find a way to profit from the Bolivian presidential election. In Gabriel, Mountford creates a complex, charismatic, and engaging character, a chameleon who works himself into increasingly precarious positions as his mission is both facilitated and complicated by his love affair with the Bolivian president-elect’s press liaison.
In Mountford's novel, the stakes of international finance and the personal lives of those involved intersect in a beautifully drawn Bolivia. A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism accomplishes that rare trick of being a book of ideas and politics while remaining, at its core, a profoundly intimate, character-driven story and a tremendously good read.
I highly recommend this captivating debut novel by a remarkably promising young writer."
Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain in a guest author review for Amazon.com
"A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism is a terrific debut novelsmart, moving, beautifully written. Peter Mountford's parable of the voracious global economy reminded me of Graham Greene's The Quiet American in its clear-eyed depiction of the realpolitik of our age."
Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins
"A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism is, quite simply, one of the most compelling and thought-provoking novels I’ve read in years. It’s extraordinarily vivid, populated by characters whose fates I cared about desperately, beautifully written, timely beyond measure, but above all it conveyswith impressive precision and nuancehow we are vectors on the grid of global capital; how difficult it is to even attempt to be an authentic, let alone admirable, human being when we are, first and last, cash flow."
David Shields, author of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto and The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead
"Peter Mountford, in his amazing debut as a novelist, has updated the gilded myth of Wall Street swashbucklers in expensive suits and spun it out into the world in a hellbent tale, dramatizing the contorted rationalizations practiced by the financial elite to justify their self-delusion. Forget fame, respect, making the world a better place. Transcend the craving for money by acquiring a truckload of it. Buddha as a hedge fund operator, reallocating soullessness throughout the system."
Bob Shacochis, author of Swimming in the Volcano and The Next New World
"A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism is a brilliant debut novel, one that is generous in giving readers an original cast of vividly-drawn and unforgettable characters, learned in its knowledge of the interwoven worlds of finance and politics, sexy, and thoroughly cosmopolitan. Peter Mountford is easily one of the most gifted and skillful young writers, already accomplished, I have had the pleasure of reading in many years."
Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage and Dreamer
"In his debut novel, A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism, Peter Mountford has something important to say about the ambiguous moral ground where the personal meets the political. He has experience and sophistication beyond his years and is well-positioned to mine this vein. This novel is worth your time and attention."
David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars
"Peter Mountford’s A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism is a sharp, funny and terrifying novelin a world so much like our own (part of the terror: it may, in fact, be our world), Gabriel’s actions and the reactions of those around him caused me to wonder, again and again: how do I wish to live in this world, and what latitude might I find?"
Peter Rock, author of My Abandonment
“This expat novel set in Bolivia covers high finance, politics, and morality. It takes on the issues of our times better than any book we’ve read in years.”
Citation for a “Nobbie” award for a best book of 2011, from The Nervous Breakdown
"This is Mountford’s triumph: he has created a commentary on contemporary economics that is as moving and genuine as it is biting and satirical . . . A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism will be remembered as a touchstone work of the Era of Twenty-First Century Economic Crises."
Raphaela Weissman for Bookslut
"Compulsively readable . . . Daringly allegorical and written with apt understatement, A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism appears as a Trojan horse within the realm of contemporary literary fiction. Mountford has the courage to depict a world in which personal lives aren't really that personal."
Chris Kraus in the Los Angeles Review of Books
"Debut novels don't come much savvier, punchier, or more entertaining than [A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism]."
Michael Upchurch in the Seattle Times
"Several things set Peter Mountford's impressive debut, A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism, apart from the few finance-driven novels that have emerged in the wake of the economic meltdown."
Jessica Loudis for NPR.ORG
"What a miraculous thing Mountford has done. Gabriel is right on both counts. And wrong. That polarity crackles in the heart of this novel, which is neither afraid to feel deep sympathy for its tragic protagonist nor hesitant to judge him harshly."
Alexander Yates in the Kenyon Review
"Mountford's powerful novel avoids easy judgements as it explores how money can take over one's life."
Mark Athitakis in Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"In this dazzling debut novel, Mountford displays a gift for characterization and a sure-footed grasp of financial matters that enable him to guide a reader nimbly through the arcane vernacular of Wall Street."
New Jersey Star Ledger
"In his powerfully-written, quick-paced, and timely debut, Mountford shines a hard light on today’s frantic financial amphitheatera place where morality is secondary to making a dollar and large companies can sabotage entire countries."
Greg Brown in The Rumpus
"This is quite simply one of the smartest and most readable debuts I’ve come across in years. Mountford is a writer who rolls up his sleeves and digs into the zeitgeist all the way up to his elbows. He’s fearless in his depiction of world leaders, global events, and the oft-ignored gray areas between morality and success."
Tyler McMahon for Fiction Writers Review
"Peter Mountford’s debut novel speeds off, down the crowded streets of La Paz. If Graham Greene and Gordon Gekko collaborated on a South American travelogue, it would go something like this . . . It turns out 'international markets and their political underpinnings' can be fun to read about, after all."
"The novel is a latter-day Graham Greene adventure, where a young protagonist in a foreign land becomes deeply embroiled in financial (instead of Greene's political) espionage, and must make decisions that will affect the course of his own life as well as his host nation's. This novel won great reviews, but may have slipped under your radar on its release in May of 2011."
St. Louis Country Library
A savvy, fast-paced second novel about an economist's midlife crisis. Vincenzo D'Orsi is a senior economist with the World Bank in Washington, D.C. The 54-year-old Italian has responsibility for Latin America. In 2005, the radical Evo Morales is a shoo-in to win the presidency of Bolivia, and only Vincenzo has the authority to change bank policy toward that country. The U.S. representative at the bank tries to bully him into an aid cutoff. Not only does Vincenzo resist, he goes public, giving an interview to his old friend Walter, veteran Washington Post reporter. It is a pivotal moment; the move ends his long career at the bank, yet Vincenzo is unsure why he has acted so drastically; he still admires the bank, for all its defects. Mountford manages all this very well: The economics are delivered crisply, and Vincenzo's impulsive exit rings true. The format for the midlife-crisis novel calls for professional and personal self-destruction, and on the personal level, Mountford is less sure-footed, as was also apparent in his 2011 debut (A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism). There can be no blowup with his wife, for Vincenzo is a widower. His beloved Cristina was killed in a traffic accident some two years earlier, so it's his relationship with their grown daughter, Leonora, that must speed his self-destruction. He loves her dearly but loathes her boyfriend, which causes his not-entirely-convincing break with her. One welcome tweak to the format comes with Ben, a young black man, who Vincenzo believes is a CIA operative, who shows up out of the blue to threaten Vincenzo if he exacerbates U.S. relations with Latin America; the Italian has no green card and could be deported. But the die has been cast; at the invitation of Morales, Vincenzo travels to Bolivia (the setting for Mountford's debut) with Walter. His required meltdown occurs when he delivers a boozy speech to a large audience in La Paz. A bracingly intelligent work, though ultimately a prisoner of the genre's conventions.
- Tin House Books
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Meetings
The annual meetings had become a kind of rowdy reunion, bearing, increasingly, the muffled bonhomie of a great funeral. At the dueling bars of the Omni and the Sheraton, the dignitariesold friends and colleagues and rivals who’d been driven apart and together by the conflicting currents of their careersgathered over strong drink and weak gossip. Everyone was present: the longwinded bore, the hardened bureaucrat, the warmly glib, and the heaving braggart, all driving up astronomical bar tabs over well-worn war stories. For most, the old ambition that had brought them together lifetimes ago was now largely vacuumed away. Vincenzo planted himself at the Sheraton’s superior bar, occasionally reading briefs in the comfortable chairs of the adjacent lobby, but otherwise holding to a tight orbit. There were fewer bilaterals this year, or at least he wasn’t required to go to as many. When he did venture off for a session or a panel, he’d lurk at the back so that he could duck out early. The young ones still passed around their business cards, as if there was some angle to be had, as if someone would remember in a week, as if it meant anything to be remembered.
Vincenzo and the other senior management mostly gossiped of their mutual acquaintancesthe firings and divorces and promotions and cancer diagnosesand struggled to reel in their diatribes and impolitic outbursts. They made jokes when they were able, allowed silences to overtake them often.
This being 2005, it wasn’t lost on them that there hadn’t been a single major economic catastrophe in five years. Except for Argentina, and that didn’t count, because their central bank was just too inept for words. So maybe everyone was starting to feel like they’d gotten it right, after all. The medicine was taking. It was terrible about Iraq and Afghanistan and a lot of other things in the world were terrible, too, but really, it could’ve been so much worse. And so the proceedings seemed lifted by a calm buoyancy that had been absent before, especially during the troubled ’90s when there began to be a lot of talk about hegemony, a word that hadn’t really seemed to exist before, but suddenly became so ubiquitous as to be immediately exhausting. Everything had been fraught in the international aid community thencrises came huge and frequent, each more terrifying than the last. Executives sharing elevators would exchange wide-eyed looks, shaking their heads, quietly pining for a return to the relative sanity of the Cold War.
With this new calm, Vincenzo knew it was all the more important to remain vigilant, all the easier to get caught sleeping at the wheel. There was always, anyway, a lurking danger to DC’s autumn months. The city’s summer torpor lifted unevenly, unpredictablyespecially for Vincenzo, from Milan, where the weather wasn’t so interesting. In the fall, in DC, you’d leave your house in a winter coat, scarf, and gloves, scrape ice off the windshield, but by lunchtime you’d be rolling up sleeves, turning up the air conditioning. Everything was forever upside down. This was prime season for losing winter apparelgloves left on a bar (after all, it felt like Caracas outside!). At last, usually in November, there’d be the day when the cold slapped you hard in the face as soon as you stepped outside; it burnt your exposed fingers, and it didn’t really let up all day. That’s when everyone got in line.
The meetings were in late September, the most erratic month, when the trees in Rock Creek Park were still shrouded like attic furniture under blankets of vines. Once that bite came in, you knew the howling bugs in the trees were not long for this world, nor were the vines. Within two months, the trees would be stripped bare and freezing rain would claw the heaps of soggy debris, decomposing into mud, down into storm drains, flush it all out into the Potomac.
Even with the chaos of September in the air, the meetings were fine. Everyone was fine. What else was there to say, after all? In Latin America, things were going well, more or less. The Bank’s programs, in particularVincenzo deserved zero credit for it, trulywere going swimmingly. No one really deserved credit for the good news. Politics had matured, capitalism was actually working. Stability had taken hold and the emerging markets were now actually emergingthey were budding, promising blooms, even fruit.
“It’s almost on auto-pilot,” he said to halfhearted chuckles from the crowd.
His panel was in one of the larger halls in the basement of the Omni. Although it was in a way the more stately hotel, the Omni had much less event space and always felt a bit bereft by comparison to the hullabaloo up the hill in the stately Sheraton; it was kind of slouching into the valley of Rock Creek Park. The chairs had been mostly empty when he convened the talk, but he’d been pleased to see people filing in steadily over the first half hour. And then, during the Q&A portion, he glanced at the clock and observed that there were eight minutes left, and what had been said? Nothing. Nothing much was ever said, but they had really said nothing at all this time. People were listing drowsily in their chairs, glancing at their phones, at least one of the reporters up front was doodling in her steno. She was attractive, or maybe not. She was young and healthy, and that was attractive. And his recognition of the predictability of his anguish at her boredom was almost as painful as his anguish at her boredom itself. Could it be so ghastly and predictable? Yes, it could.
Afterward, he and his co-panelists had a half hour break, before they were to reconvene in a boardroom upstairs for an hour-long closed-door session with delegates from the major Latin American economies, namely Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Brazil, who all wanted to explore their evolving relationship with the wealthy countries that had for so many decades been eitherdepending on whom you askedbailing them out of bad situations they got themselves into, or shoving them into bad situations and then charging them for a lifeline. Both interpretations were hopelessly naive. In any case, these countries were seeming less feeble by the day. Something had shifted underneath everyone’s feet in the last few years and now things were fundamentally different. It was time to have a frank conversation.
Vincenzo was heading for a coffee and a pee after the first meeting when Cynthia, who he hadn’t seen in fifteen years, approached with that mischievous squinting smile on her face. She’d left the World Bank for some forgettable leadership role at IADB more than a decade ago. Now here she was, edging toward him with that self-conscious smirk, saying , “Oh my God, he’s alive!”
Setting his briefcase down on the chair once she was within striking distance, he grabbed her by both shoulders and kissed her on her cheeks and then held her back, like a child he was appraising. “How the hell are you?” he said. And they hugged.
“I hate being back here,” she said into his shoulder. “I can’t walk ten feet without running into horrible old ghouls like you.”
He grinned and they separated. “But you live here, right?”
“God no, I slid over to the UNDP and they put me in Brazil, hence” and she waved vaguely at the room they were in. The new job was, strictly speaking, a step down from the old one, which was probably why she hadn’t broadcast the move. She’d gone meaty and middle-aged. A sexless pall had fallen over her, as it did most of them, as it had, no doubt, over him. Back when they were sleeping together, when she was on mission in Peru, she had an impressive body for a mother of three in her forties, and her aura was distinctly raunchy. She radiated low-frequency sexual enticement, always. Something in the body language, the way she sat down so slowly, how the curve of her thigh drew the gaze, and also how long she held your hand during a handshake, the over-determined eye contact. Even her coy grin seemed dangerous. You just knew she was a pervert. Now she waswhat?probably in her late fifties. More battle horse than colt. That radiant carnality had dimmed. Or maybe it was still there, and only he’d changed, maybe his equipment had been damaged. Yes, maybe he just couldn’t hear that frequency. Even worse, maybe she just didn’t turn it on for him now.
“Look, we should have a drink,” he said. “I have another meeting.” The last of the others were filing out of the room now.
“I’m going to be at that meeting.”
“Ohthe one upstairs?”
“Yes. We’ll go to the bar up at the Sheraton afterward?” she said.
She smiled a little, and then said, “If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, don’t think that.”
He snorted. And then he slowly drew a deep breath, shook his head, looked away.
Since he didn’t deny it, she said, “Do you still want to have that drink?”
He paused for effect, looked her in the eye and said, unconvincing as possible, “Of course I do.”
She chuckled humorlessly, surely weary of men like him.
It was only once they were in the elevator going up that it dawned on him that this wasn’t as much a coincidence meeting as it had seemed at first. She really had no reason to be at that session, nor the next one. No, she was angling for something. Maybe a job. He’d find out soon enough.
They were not alone in the elevator, there were several others, but still he could smell Cynthia’s perfume, still too sweet, too much. So much honeysuckle; it brought back a sour stain of guilt, all the worse now that there was no reason for guilt.
Perhaps sensing where his mind was heading, she said, “How’s your kid?”
He squinted at her. Maybe she hadn’t heard. Probably she had, but he wouldn’t bring it up. “She finished college and is in New York.”
“A waitress. Tattoos.” She smiled in the repressed way that people do while conversing in crowded elevators. “Your husband?” he said.
“Fine,” she said. “Great.”
The problem was that Peru shouldn’t have been invited to the closed-door meeting. Peru’s development was still too gestational. As if to underscore this, their delegate was dour in a shapeless sports jacket and khakis, while everyone else in the room wore suits. But this was the era of inclusion, apparently. Eastern European countries were tumbling into the EU and the field was everywhere more open, more noisy and confusing.
Not long after they had settled in, the Peruvian delegate set forth with a question, a statement really, about the Bank’s commitment to global emissions reductions. The question was odd and awkward for a variety of reasons, not least that a Peruvian delegate would take up this non-Peruvian issue so publicly.
Here it was, naked and crazed, the hobgoblin of their era: fairness. A muddle-headed man, the delegate also produced a subordinate question about the long term viability of the petroleum-based successes, which could seem like a weird dig at Brazil. Or maybe he was parroting Ecuador’s recent noise about the Yasune ITT initiative. Of course, he just wanted to show that he was formidable, but he came off as far too confrontational and obsessed with the hegemon. Anyway, he was on the wrong subject.
Pablo Rendón, deputy director of the environment directorate at the Inter-American Development Bank, and an old friend of Vincenzo’s, had talked about the environmental policy downstairs. Pablo had said what was to be said, really. They were forging ahead despite the maddening intransigencePablo had put it more politelyof the USA. Bush had just made it clear that they wouldn’t sign on to Kyoto, and that was the end of that.
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