Money Wanders: A Novelby Eric Dezenhall
Jonah Eastman, disgraced Presidential pollster, is summoned home to Atlantic City by his ailing grandfather Mickey Price--a legendary Atlantic City gangster and owner of the Golden Prospect casino. When Mickey dies, Jonah is "persuaded" by mob boss Mario Vanni to help improve his image by launching a misinformation campaign aimed at gaining public acceptance and
Jonah Eastman, disgraced Presidential pollster, is summoned home to Atlantic City by his ailing grandfather Mickey Price--a legendary Atlantic City gangster and owner of the Golden Prospect casino. When Mickey dies, Jonah is "persuaded" by mob boss Mario Vanni to help improve his image by launching a misinformation campaign aimed at gaining public acceptance and ultimately a way "outta the life."
So Jonah goes to war through a comical and audacious manipulation of the media which includes online rumoring, exploiting romantic myths of the mob, and orchestrating a union-backed pseudo-vigil after Vanni is arrested. To pull off these stunts, he enlists the help of his grandfather's Prohibition-era cronies, pimply-faced hackers, a disgruntled Secret Service agent, a cagey Washington lobbyist, a slick Philadelphia publicist, and a street-fighting rabbi.
Money Wanders is a wild and uproarious tour of spin and media manipulation from the lobbied halls of Congress to the dilapidated boardwalk of Atlantic City.
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By Eric Dezenhall
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2002 Eric Dezenhall
All rights reserved.
Eye in the Sky
Atlantic City, New Jersey
"They think they can fool everybody."
"EVEN A TERRIBLE MAN WANTS TO LEAVE HIS KIDS SOMETHING," my grandfather, Mickey, ranted at me as if he were the Jersey Shore's answer to Solomon the Wise. His accent was coarse, like petrified wood: "Terrible" rhymed with "gerbil."
"What terrible man?" I asked.
"Mario Vanni. He wants to talk to you."
Mickey shook his head in surrender as he watched my feet. I had begun to straddle back and forth, digging the heels of my boots into the red-brown carpet.
"Settle down already!" Mickey concluded, "What are you doing, a rain dance?"
"How the hell can you expect me to settle down?" I snapped. "Irv the Curve made it sound like you were taking your last breath when he called." Deathbed summonses and their attendant speeches had become routine for Mickey ever since my business took off. "And now you tell me this about Vanni."
Mickey bit down hard on a pickle, decapitating it, as if his being almost a century old were the pickle's fault. Mickey didn't sound like himself; he seemed faded, his tracking off center — like a video dub of who he once had been. He chewed in slow motion, which made me think that maybe he really was sick this time. He then popped a green tablet that I hadn't seen before into his mouth. Now I felt like a vulture.
Television monitors winked and blew tinsel kisses from along the wall. Mickey and I were alone in the room where he watches over the Golden Prospect, the casino he opened when Jersey made gaming legal. Ninety-five years old and he can't wait to get here every day. He complains about the pressure, but it's all he knows, it's who he is.
The "Eye in the Sky" feeds into in this room. It's a phrase the pit bosses use to describe the cameras that track everyone in Mickey's gambling kingdom. He didn't officially own the Golden Prospect. He was listed in company records as the bell captain, a nuance he loved. Once when I brought some friends home from college, Mickey met us in the lobby in a bellhop's uniform. He loaded all the bags onto a cart and waved his fingers at a few FBI guys who were watching. "See!" was all he said.
Mickey couldn't be listed as the hotel's official owner because he fled the country in 1975 to dodge an indictment involving gambling junkets to the Bahamas and God knows what else. I was thirteen at the time and had left the United States with Mickey and my grandmother, Deedee. My parents had died a few years earlier. Deedee was gone, too, now.
Irv the Curve, Mickey's voice to the outside world, had called me this morning and told me to hurry down the Shore. Irv made it sound as if Mickey had had a stroke. He didn't actually say "stroke," he just used sentences that ricocheted me into thinking this. I shot out of my office in Washington, D.C., and drove north on I-95, making it to Atlantic City in two hours and forty minutes. This was exceptional timing considering that I would rather be pecked to death by Boardwalk pigeons than be jerked through the wilderness again by Mickey. I had lived in Washington since I graduated from Dartmouth, but came home to the Shore often, however reluctantly. After years of political work, I had my own polling firm, the Jonah P. Eastman Group, which specialized in maverick Republicans.
My hip began to itch, and it took me a second to realize that the little E-mail device I carried on my belt was vibrating. I unhooked it and read the tiny screen.
"What are you looking at?" Mickey asked.
"I just got mail."
"What the hell are you saying, that you got mail on that little matchbox?"
"Yeah. It's just a friend checking in. You remember Trouble, right?"
"Trouble, sure ... Wait a minute — if you got mail, where's the envelope?"
"No envelope, it's just words." I held the little device up for him. He snarled at it and looked the other way.
"My taffy shop downstairs wants to do this gadget thing, a websty."
"A Web site."
"Yeah, Web site. People came into that shop for sixty years because they smelled the saltwater taffy. How the hell can you smell saltwater taffy across a goddamned wire? Next thing you know, you'll be able to play with girls on a computer. You know what I'm talking about," he added furtively.
"You can do that now, Pop."
"Girls on a computer? Without the clothes? You're shitting me! So that's the bait with this Internet" — Innernet — "a buncha kids looking at girlie pictures. I knew it had to be something like that." Mickey thought for a moment. "But how do you get all the nice perfume? Aaah! In the lobby, they have a computer where you can press a button and the machine says, 'Take a walk on the Boardwalk.'"
"So? It's not taking a walk on the Boardwalk with the air and the pigeon shit, it's a cartoon! I'm glad I won't live to see it."
"What do you mean, Pop? You did live to see it."
"Every generation has its swindle. Mine had Prohibition. Yours has those damned gadgets. Enough with that. How's business?" he asked.
I hesitated before answering. Things were not going well, and answering Mickey's question truthfully would upset him. To the extent that my business still existed, it lived in this little E-mail pager strapped to my hip. I could always nurse the old guy back to health by telling him how great things were, what awards I had won, what big shots I had met. Mickey's pride in me took on biblical proportions, especially after a polling stint I did in the White House in the eighties. (I won my whiz kid reputation then by conducting a poll demonstrating how in certain settings, President Reagan could make even liberals "feel good.") One moment Mickey would order me to "stay down there and build your life." Then he would call and ask me if his big-shot grandson had forgotten his "beat-up old Pop Pop." Mickey's violent zigzag from pride to punishment caused me to crash perpetually between self-congratulation and an all-too-real impulse to kill him myself and get it over with. To complicate matters, I could never tell whether he was relieved or hurt that none of the big shots ever found out that I was the grandson of Moses "Mickey" Price, "the billionaire Atlantic City gangster known as the 'Wizard of Odds,'" according to KBRO-TV reporter Al Just in Philadelphia.
In his state, I decided that lying to Mickey (he'd know) would have hurt him more than the truth, so I told him.
"Business isn't great. I'm on the outs with my big governor client. A polling technique I used in another campaign backfired, and some folks are making a whole ethics case out of it."
"Ethics?" Mickey studied the remains of his headless pickle.
"Ever since the Post said that I engineered the last Congressional sweep with my America Delivers platform, I've needed another hit."
Truth be told, I needed more than just another hit. After my campaign fiasco made the news, all of my other clients suddenly began to embrace "alternative strategies," that is, strategies that didn't involve me.
"Yeah, Elvis? I have news for you. You can make a living without hits. Your problem is that you believed the Post. You're all like dope addicts down there. Don't mistake yourself for somebody historically significant. Hits!"
"Anyway, I was thinking about moving up here and taking over, moving you out, seeing as how you're so sick. I could be the capo di tutti frutti, the Big Kugel. Maybe I'll talk it over with Vanni." I thought this might make him laugh.
"Now don't get smart. You didn't go off to your fancy college to come and work with me. This is no life for, you know, guys like us. We got out of that in the forties." We. Our Crowd. Tribesmen. Jewish racketeers. Mickey said this with a straight face, then summed up: "You had other choices, Jonah."
"So did you, Pop."
"Entrances are wide, exits are narrow. And who's got the ethics problem, Justice Brandeis?" Mickey let forth a sharp, pickled growl.
"Pop, what did you mean about Vanni wanting something for his kids?"
"Christ, I dunno," Mickey mumbled to his pickle. "I don't know anything anymore. All I know is I got a goddamned canker sore in my mouth," he announced, blinking up at me from his chair.
"Then don't eat pickles." This was the only way to handle Mickey. He only understood commandments. He glanced off at the wall of frantic convex screens.
He called this room "the Eye" for short. It was about fifteen feet wide and thirty feet long. Along one wall, thirty TV monitors were stacked in three rows of ten. They were hooked up to cameras that covered the whole casino floor. If Mickey's guys didn't like something they saw, they had their choice of ten red phones that could call right down to the floor. Mickey watched the screens like the kids watched MTV.
A great Lenni-Lenape Indian tapestry was draped against the wall opposite the monitors. Mickey had bought it from the tribe before I was born. A small plaque at the ornate tapestry's base read LENNI-LENAPE SWADDLING BLANKET. He loved the thing.
I took a seat across from Mickey. He began nibbling at the pickle stump again, looking like an elf with snow white hair that had eroded in step with the Atlantic City shoreline.
He was wearing a green Dartmouth sweatshirt and khaki pants. A Patek Philippe watch was strapped tightly around his left wrist. A turquoise and silver band hugged his brown middle finger. Mickey always wore loafers. He said you could tell who was who by his shoes. The FBI wore thick, clunky tie shoes that were forever chasing after sleek loafers. "Loafers are nice and easy," he once said. "Slip 'em on and slip 'em off. Run to the next thing, you know?"
Mickey's eyes were a warm green, the only feature I had inherited from him. I was taller and my features were smaller and of no obvious ethnicity. His nose split his face like the wedge in the middle of a sundial. Nearly a century of walking and worrying had kept him thin. He had chain-smoked until he was eighty, which had also kept the weight off. Mickey's nemesis, the reporter Al Just, had said on the air that Mickey was "a cross between your favorite tailor and Napoleon."
Mickey's voice echoed like the Boardwalk at dusk. I didn't have his accent anymore. Mickey had been vigilant about making my speech untraceable, as if I could be jailed for it. He was ashamed of how he spoke, which was one reason, I think, why he relied on Irv the Curve to do the talking.
Mickey rolled his chair across the room to a white porcelain sink in the corner of the Eye. He proceeded to wash his hands with antibacterial soap, a long-standing habit of his. He then took a long hit from an oxygen mask that appeared from a drawer next to the sink. I had seen him do this before, but he never used to breathe in this long.
"Just look at you in the cowboy boots. In New Jersey no less."
"South Jersey. They're not actually cowboy boots. They're Australian roping boots. I've worn this kind since those summer jobs at the racetrack." ("It'll be good for you to trample around in a little shit, Jonah.")
"Slide over the pickles."
Mickey took out a laser pointer from his breast pocket and beamed it on the little bowl with the Golden Prospect logo. Mickey's nurse, a mountainous black woman named Odessa, had gotten him the laser pointer so he wouldn't have to walk over to the TV screens whenever he saw something.
"So now you want the pickles."
"Right. Pour me some of that water?" He shot the laser onto a pitcher.
Mickey kept the laser on the pitcher. It looked like I was pouring a string of blood. My wrist jerked with a nervous spasm, and some of the water flowed over the side of Mickey's glass.
"You ever been in a tidal wave?" Mickey asked, sliding over a crested napkin.
"No. Have you?"
"Nah, but remember what I told you about waves."
"Move toward them, not away."
"Right. Get in close and ride it. You run, it crushes you. You always liked to fight things bigger than you, but you don't fight tidal waves."
"If all this talk is about Vanni, then just tell me."
"You play tidal waves different, if you can believe that," Mickey persisted.
"I can believe it. What do you believe, Pop?"
"Do I have to believe in something?"
"All right, I believe in something."
"None of your businesses."
Mickey shut his eyes then popped them open wide, urgently leaning across the table to grab my hands. I remember the first time he did this to me. It was after my mother died, when I was twelve. He had just given me a lecture about having to be tough. He reminded me that he had lost his daughter, too. Deedee told him if she ever heard that "tough business" again, she would kill Mickey herself.
Mickey's eyes were slowly turning red and welling up. His tears weren't falling and I wondered if he had a little drain behind his eyes the way sinks do to prevent overflow. "Always get inside a big wave. They hit you hard but they show you what you've got." Mickey picked up his laser and wiggled the red light at my chest. "Up close is the best way to play the variables.
"I can't watch over you," he added. Two large pearls of tears now slid down his tan cheeks. No drain. "I can't tell people what they can do and can't do anymore. I can't stop what I can't stop. You've got to find a place for yourself. The Shore isn't for you. Sounds like you pissed off those hoity-toity Republicans with that bull head of yours. You don't have patience for the broads you meet. And don't get me started on those cowboy boots —"
I wanted desperately to change the subject. I turned and studied the monitors on the wall. One of Mickey's boys had left a radio on. It was playing Springsteen's version of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." I gently tapped Mickey's knuckles.
"Pop, do you hear this song?"
"What about it?"
"My counselor used to play it on the guitar when I was in summer camp in the Pine Barrens. There's a line about 'walking that ribbon of highway.' I thought the singer said 'Ribbonoff Highway,' like there was some old guy named Ribbonoff who had built a highway and named it after himself."
Mickey's eyes dragged across me. My reminiscence had not registered. My throat tightened up, and suddenly I felt dizzy. I had a history of vertigo. Sometimes it came on strong and other times it passed over me, but the anticipation was always there. I stood and held on to the table, which helped straighten me out.
"Hey, Pop, you look tired. Why don't you lie down? I'll take you up to your apartment."
Mickey held up his hands in forfeit. "There's no billion dollars, Jonah."
"What? A billion dollars?" I involuntarily laughed. The local press loved to speculate about where Mickey had hidden his stash ever since Al Just first discovered how sexy talk about gangster cash could be. Whenever his ratings fell, Just could always draw the region to its TV sets by injecting the phrase "new information about Mickey Price's hidden stash" into any story. I had long since come to regard the notion that Mickey had big money as a suburban legend — South Jersey's answer to the D. B. Cooper story. Another wave of vertigo fell through me, then dissolved like the breakers.
"Reporters. I remember that Al Just when he was Alvin Yutzel tagging along with his father, Mouse Yutzel. Mouse worked for me, you know."
"Reporters are momzers. They think they can fool everybody."
"They can fool everybody, Pop," I said.
"You can fool all of the people who want to be fooled all of the time."
"I know. So why does everything come back to that story?" Mickey was obsessed with the "billionaire" label that had been affixed to his head by KBRO. He didn't respond.
Mickey didn't want to go to bed. He wanted to watch the evening news with "that nice-looking Peter Jennings," so I sat him down on the sofa up in the penthouse. Odessa awaited Mickey, puffing up a pillow so that he could sit back. He looked like a Lilliputian next to her. I flipped on the television.
"How old are you, Jonah, you thirty yet?" Odessa asked me.
"I was thirty-eight a couple of months ago. I was born during the big storm in March of sixty-two."
"Knocking on forty," Mickey said in the background. "Don't kid yourself."
Excerpted from Money Wanders by Eric Dezenhall. Copyright © 2002 Eric Dezenhall. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Eric Dezenhall is the co-founder of Nichols-Dezenhall Communications Management Group, one of the nation's leading crisis management firms, and is the author of Nail 'Em! Confronting High Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Businesses (Prometheus Books, 1999). He lives in Bethesda, MD. Money Wanders is his first novel.
Eric Dezenhall co-founded the communications firm Dezenhall Resources, Ltd., and serves as its CEO. His first book of nonfiction, Nail ‘Em!: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Business, pioneered techniques for understanding and defusing crises. The author novels such as Jackie Disaster, The Devil Himself and Spinning Dixie, he lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
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I normally don't read fiction, but a friend highly recommended 'Money Wanders' as a terrific read. (Both of us are fans of The Sopranos on HBO.) I'm glad I listened to him. This novel is funny, intelligent and entertaining, with a few unforgettable characters thrown in for good measure. Just like The Sopranos. And, at $20, 'Money Wanders' is a lot cheaper than a year's subscription to HBO. Now there's an offer you can't refuse.