The Altruists

The Altruists

by Andrew Ridker
The Altruists

The Altruists

by Andrew Ridker


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A New York Times Editors' Choice

"[An] intelligent, funny, and remarkably assured first novel. . . . [Andrew Ridker establishes] himself as a big, promising talent. . . . Hilarious. . . . Astute and highly entertaining. . . . Outstanding."
—The New York Times Book Review

"With humor and warmth, Ridker explores the meaning of family and its inevitable baggage. . . . A relatable, unforgettable view of regular people making mistakes and somehow finding their way back to each other."
—People (Book of the Week)

"[A] strikingly assured debut. . . . A novel that grows more complex and more uproarious by the page, culminating in an unforgettable climax."
—Entertainment Weekly (The Must List)

A Real Simple Best Book of the Year (So Far)

Named a Most Anticipated Book of 2019 by The Millions and PureWow

A vibrant and perceptive novel about a father's plot to win back his children's inheritance

Arthur Alter is in trouble. A middling professor at a Midwestern college, he can't afford his mortgage, he's exasperated his much-younger girlfriend, and his kids won't speak to him. And then there's the money—the small fortune his late wife, Francine, kept secret, which she bequeathed directly to his children.

Those children are Ethan, an anxious recluse living off his mother's money on a choice plot of Brooklyn real estate, and Maggie, a would-be do-gooder trying to fashion herself a noble life of self-imposed poverty. On the verge of losing the family home, Arthur invites his children back to St. Louis under the guise of a reconciliation. But in doing so, he unwittingly unleashes a Pandora's box of age-old resentments and long-buried memories—memories that orbit Francine, the matriarch whose life may hold the key to keeping them together.

Spanning New York, Paris, Boston, St. Louis, and a small desert outpost in Zimbabwe, The Altruists is a darkly funny (and ultimately tender) family saga that confronts the divide between baby boomers and their millennial offspring. It's a novel about money, privilege, politics, campus culture, dating, talk therapy, rural sanitation, infidelity, kink, the American beer industry, and what it means to be a "good person."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525522713
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/05/2019
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Andrew Ridker was born in 1991. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, Guernica, Boston Review, The Believer, and St. Louis Magazine; and he is the editor of Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics. He is the recipient of an Iowa Arts Fellowship from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The Altruists is his first novel.

Read an Excerpt


"You're coming with us."

Maggie had known Emma since braces, but the awkward girl who'd played saxophone in their high school jazz band with enough enthusiasm to redeem the instrument-and, for that matter, jazz-was now in her second year of law school. A dozen of her classmates stood clustered in Emma's living room, hands hooked around significant others or planted confidently on their hips. In the kitchenette, handles of vodka with frosted-glass insignia shared counter space with plastic jugs of Simply Orange. Maggie swore she knew the song piping through the apartment, but each time she came close to identifying it, an incoming text would ping through the phone that was hooked to the speakers and throw her concentration. "You always show up at the start of things," Emma continued, "but then you sneak away like no one's going to notice."

"No I don't," said Maggie.

"Well, good. Because you're coming out with us tonight."

Maggie ground her teeth and stared at the orange ring of residue at the bottom of her Solo cup. Across the room, a toothy boy in fashionable glasses was doing an impression of someone Maggie didn't recognize.

"There are a lot of interesting people here," Emma added, gesturing to a huddle of her classmates.

Maggie scowled. The whole scene felt staged. Everyone was too put together, too self-assured. A jolt of paranoia seized her. Had this party, this Lower East Side gathering of marketing associates and financial analysts and almost-lawyers, been arranged for her benefit? Maggie couldn't shake the feeling that this conspicuous display of upward mobility was intended to send her a message.

"What are you trying to say?"

Emma put her hands up. "I'm not trying to say anything!"

Maggie relaxed her shoulders. She was doing fine, after all. She made rent working for the good people of Queens. Her only boss was her conscience. Most days this meant running errands, or babysitting, or liaising with city government on behalf of her Spanish- and Russian- and Chinese-speaking neighbors. Odd jobs. Over the course of five months she'd cultivated a small network of clients, mostly immigrants who considered her US citizenship to be a marketable skill. It was satisfying work, though it didn't pay particularly well. She was always a little bit hungry.

The toothy boy sidled up to them. "We were talking about Ziegler," he said.

"Oh my god," said Emma. "Ziegler!"

"Who's Ziegler?" Maggie asked.

"He's one of our professors," said the boy. "Torts."

"What are torts?"

"It's when an injured party-"

"Oh. Never mind."

The boy looked hurt. "Okay," he said.

Emma introduced them. "This is Maggie. We went to high school together."

"What do you do?" the boy asked, squinting.

Recently, a Polish woman on Himrod Street hired Maggie to talk at her newborn son. She was told she could say anything she liked, as long as she said it in English, the idea being that the baby would assimilate the language into its burgeoning subconscious and grow up fluent. But on her first day, once the mother left the room, Maggie blanked. She muttered erm and um and uh the whole session, paralyzed at first by nerves and then by guilt at the prospect of making ten bucks an hour without having earned it. "I can't take your money," she told the woman at the session's end. "But I'll be back next week with a lot to say. I promise."

Okay, so the hunger wasn't dire, but to be honest? Denying oneself a full belly kind of felt a little bit saintly. Maggie kept enough money on hand to afford to feel saintly, to afford to turn other money down. She regulated her spending with scrupulous discipline, consuming only what she needed, only what she felt she deserved. The problem was that her body couldn't differentiate between self-inflicted hunger and the other kind. It, a body, knew only "hunger"-the nutritional deficiency, not the ideological assertion-and, accordingly, she'd slimmed. Six pounds over two years. Which wasn't nothing, especially when you weren't much to begin with.

It was nice at first, feeling light and wobbly all the time. She walked the streets of Ridgewood with a mild buzz that blurred the boundaries of her consciousness. But then her cramps grew claws and the hunger pangs turned violent. She became concerned after passing out in a five-flavor cloud behind the Hong Kong Super Buffet, her legs buckling in mutiny against her. In the first semester of her freshman year at Danforth University in St. Louis, Maggie took two weeks of Philosophy 101: Foundations of Western Thought before dropping it for something less theoretical, which was long enough for her to learn the phrase mind-body problem but not its definition. Now, she felt she was experiencing, if not the mind-body problem, then at least a mind-body problem. Her body was making its own demands, while the part of her that made her Maggie-she supposed this was the "self"-seemed to hover above it like a tethered balloon.

Emma waved a hand in front of her. "Maggie? Brian asked you something."

Weight aside, Maggie was a credible likeness of her late mother. She had Francine Klein Alter's hair, reddish brown and prone to curl, and a subtle spritz of freckles across the bridge of her nose. But where Maggie was small, her mother had been (not big, or stocky, but) solid, with a density that bespoke firm moral conviction. From her father, to whom Maggie refused to acknowledge a resemblance, she'd inherited a partially protruding forehead, a skull hammered into shape by a mind that couldn't make itself up.

"Is she okay?" the boy, Brian, asked.

"We need to put some food in you," said Emma. "I think I have tortilla chips around here somewhere."

"No, no." Maggie waved her off. "I'm fine."

"Are you sure?"

She nodded. A little light-headedness was all. "Positive."

"Okay. Well-all right. Get your stuff together. We're leaving in ten minutes."

"Where are we going?"


Maggie scanned the room. Every few minutes someone would excuse themselves from their cluster and join another, which invariably caused someone in that cluster to depart in short order for yet another, the groups always shifting but remaining the same size in some kind of social thermodynamics that struck Maggie as both deliberate and alienating. "That's the problem," she said. "Everybody here is on their way somewhere else."

"What are you talking about? We're going to a bar. All of us."

Maggie raised her eyebrows. "Don't lump me with this 'us.'"

Emma sighed. "Everyone here is super nice. And smart!" She poked Brian with her elbow. "Brian is a genius."

Maggie shook her head. "I can't."

"Mags. It's my birthday." She smiled desperately. "You've known me longer than anyone here. Can you please? This once? For me?"

Maggie was flattered-did she really know Emma the longest, and therefore best?-but she could already see how the evening would play out. She'd buy one sixteen-dollar cocktail and spend the rest of the night regretting the expense, enduring conversations about how 1L had been much harder than 2L while refusing drinks from boys with disposable incomes who all wore the same blue button-down shirts.

"Sorry," she said. "I can't do it."

Emma's smile slanted. "You can, but you won't. You don't have to make things so difficult on yourself, you know. Life doesn't have to be that hard."

But Emma had it wrong. Life was hard, for almost everyone, and it was the duty of those for whom life was easy to impose difficulty on themselves before they rotted from the inside out. If there was one thing Maggie couldn't stand to see, it was people with plenty to lose enjoying themselves.

All at once she felt dizzy. Sick. The music in the room began to slur. Was anyone else hearing this? A drop of sweat landed in her cup. She extended a hand and reached for Emma's shoulder, but her fingers never made it all the way.

Though she knew she shouldn't have skipped lunch, Maggie blamed her fainting spell on the wear and tear she suffered at the hands of a twelve-year-old boy.

Twice per week, she visited Bruno Nakahara at his parents' apartment, ostensibly to help him and his brother with their homework. But Bruno's newfound interest in mixed martial arts had resulted in a constellation of bruises spread across her body, hard-won blemishes the color of stale steak. He maintained that pummeling his tutor was a necessary exercise in service of his craft.

"Ground and pound!" he'd shouted earlier that day, knocking Maggie to the floor.

Though this particular job hardly paid, Maggie tolerated, even welcomed, Bruno's abuse. His assaults were evidence that she was engaged in the kind of work that required sacrifice. Think Mother Teresa, frail and stooped. Gandhi and his jutting ribcage. Maggie's were legitimizing bruises. Proof of character. Because that was the thing about trying to do good: you always wound up knuckled in the gut.

The Nakaharas lived in cramped, if cozy, quarters. The apartment overlooked the awkward heart of Cypress, Myrtle, and Madison in Ridgewood, Queens, a pavilion of negative space where you could hear, on quiet Sunday nights, components of the neighborhood in isolation: church bells logging hours, the zip of flickering neon signage. The thirty-year-old feud between a bald man and a pigeon.

"Oh-kay," she'd grumbled, worming out from under him. She limped inside the apartment. "I see we're still working on our anger issues." She used the first-person plural with the boys. It helped establish unity and trust.

The Nakahara living room invariably stunk of burnt taquitos or pizza rolls or whatever frozen thing Bruno was eating that week, cut with the farts of their infirm yellow Lab, Flower, who had long since planted himself in the corner of the living room to die. The wall-to-wall carpeting was dirtied beige like street-side snow. Above a brown pleather couch, a pair of portraits hung side by side: one of Michael Jackson, the other (she had asked) of Petro Poroshenko.

"I don't have anger issues," Bruno said. "I have ODD." He meant oppositional defiant disorder, an affliction he'd read about on the internet.

"It's a real disease," he said, "and you know that." But the accuracy of his diagnosis did not mitigate its effects.

"Disorder," she corrected. "Not disease."

In the six months that she'd worked with him, Maggie had watched Bruno exhaust a variety of interests, including but not limited to switchblades, extreme eating, and pyromania. Though MMA was, as far as Maggie could tell, little more than an excuse for deranged boxers to dispense with the philosophical elements that supposedly made pugilism a "gentleman's sport," she maintained it was a better hobby than the others. It was athletic, after all, and there was tangible proof of its impact. The fruits of Bruno's labors were evident on his body-and extended now to hers.

"I'm already done with homework," called Alex from the kitchen table, his voice twinkling like a concierge's bell. Where Bruno was all chunk, his limbs puffed out and cinched at the joints like those of balloon animals, his brother was small and sleek, streamlined, with clear skin and ink-black hair.

"If you're finished, you can do your MathBlast. And, Bruno, please remove whatever's smoking in the oven right now."

She unbuckled the belt that latched her messenger bag to her chest, and it fell, with a soft shower of zipper clinks, onto the carpet. Liberated, she began stage-managing the apartment, laying three sharpened pencils by Alex's dominant hand before sliding into Bruno's chair to minimize a knockout game video and open Microsoft Word.

Then, as if on cue, the boy's father, an unkempt Japanese man to whom Maggie had never been formally introduced-and who spoke little English, which was weird, because she didn't think the boys knew Japanese-poked his head into the kitchen. He bestowed a long, concerned look upon the scene and disappeared again into his bedroom.

"Bruno, now."

The boy grunted and headed for the kitchen.

Maggie was a tentative disciplinarian. Beneath her strict rules was a deep well of tenderness for the boys. She didn't enjoy punishing them. She would've preferred they obey her out of sheer respect. She wasn't asking for total reverence. But she maintained that they did respect her. Preteen-boy respect could look a lot like disrespect sometimes. It was how they showed affection. And, she thought, recalling the work of a seminal anthropologist she'd read in college, earning the natives' respect was always step one. Or, not "natives," but-whatever.

"Who wants mini calzone pizzas?" Bruno asked, pulling a tray of blackened dough rolls from the oven. He code-switched to his rap voice. "Just kidding, mothafuckaz. These bitches is mine." He tipped his head back and let one of the saucy pockets fall into his mouth.

Maggie's wayward path to Ridgewood had begun with the idea, conceived of in childhood, that the world was not just small but responsive to her efforts.

As a girl she took frequent walks through Forest Park in St. Louis, collecting errant golf balls that had flown off course. When she'd amassed enough to fill the blue fourteen-gallon recycling bin her parents kept in the garage, she hosed them down and hauled them to the sidewalk by the teeing ground. An entrepreneurial instinct compelled her to erect a sign: golf balls. $1 per. She made forty dollars her first day, selling more than half her stock. But when she showed up the following weekend, Maggie had a change of heart. She decided to give her goods away for free. And why not? She liked taking walks, she liked collecting golf balls-she even liked the purifying act of cleaning them! Although she found golf itself to be a total joke, an uninspired, white-male pastime of the most antiquated kind, she discovered, out there on the green, that she also liked the act of giving.

This was a revelation. If generosity was so euphoric, why did people sell things at all? Why engage in the give-and-take (and take-and-take) of commerce? In the span of two weeks, she had created and destroyed a marketplace. And learned a valuable lesson: the boundaries erected between people and their systems were never as insurmountable as they seemed.

She arrived at this conclusion in spite of a father with a deep reserve of doubt regarding all things philanthropic. A few years after outfoxing capitalism in Forest Park, Maggie expressed an interest in donating her allowance to a hurricane-clobbered New Orleans. But Arthur discouraged her, lecturing his daughter on the dubious fetishism of victimhood and the Red Cross's tendency to squander all its money on overhead.

"They don't do anything with all that cash but sit on it," he said.

Reading Group Guide

1. The generational divide between baby boomers and millennials is at the center of The Altruists. How have generational differences affected your own relationships with family members?

2. Why is Arthur so attached to the Alter family home? What do you think keeps him there?

3. At the novel’s start, Ethan’s and Maggie’s lives have stagnated in New York. Ethan isn’t working and is deeply in debt, and Maggie is fooling herself into thinking she’s fulfilled by her various jobs when really she’s still grieving her mother. Are their depressive states the products of themselves, their upbringing, or American millennial life in the early 21st century?

4. Do you identify with one member of the Alter family in particular?

5. Maggie sees herself as a sacrificing philanthropist, but there are so many points in The Altruists where she reveals herself to be young and somewhat self-involved. Is she able to do good in the novel?

6. Why do you think Francine didn’t reveal her lucrative investments to Arthur?

7. Neither Arthur nor Francine grew up in particularly happy homes. How do you think this affected their relationship and their parenting choices?

8. How does the moment in Zimbabwe when Arthur realizes his work has not only failed but is repeating history affect all of his future decisions? What would his life be like if he had succeeded in Zimbabwe?

9. When Arthur announces that he’s changed his mind and doesn’t want his children’s inheritances after all, is he sincere, if even momentarily? Or is he attempting a final psychological manipulation?

10. The Altruists ends with a reversal of fortune and dependency when Arthur moves to live with Maggie on her spacious property in Vermont. What is Andrew Ridker saying about what, if anything, we owe our parents?

11. Altruism refers to selfless acts performed in the interest of increasing others’ well-being. Do any of the characters in The Altruists perform a selfless act? Or do you think anything is ever truly selfless?

12. The Altruists features many tenuous familial relationships—what is Ridker implying about modern American family life?

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