Perhaps it is hard to imagine that a novel based on the World Bank’s economic policy toward Bolivia would keep you reading past page 5, but Peter Mountford’s “The Dismal Science” (Tin House Books, 275 pages, $15.95) is a great deal of fun. His prose is lively and literate. In addition to offering us a behind-the-scenes look at the forces that fund projects in needy countries, he gives us a confused but admirable central figure in Vincenzo D’Orsi.
Vincenzo is a middle-aged vice president of the World Bank who approves major loans on their merits and derives satisfaction from thinking of the good that may follow. When pressured by an American executive on the board concerning Bolivia’s leftist regime, Vincenzo quits abruptly and publicly.
The novel follows Vincenzo’s disorientation as he explores his options — all politically charged — once he exits his apolitical cocoon (he has worked at the World Bank 24 years). Investment banking? Think tanks? Economic attaché to Bolivian President Evo Gonzales? Vincenzo’s personal life is equally unsettled. A grieving widower, Vincenzo is devoted to his daughter, who in turn is devoted to a pretentious, do-nothing boyfriend.
The high point of the novel comes as Vincenzo receives an invitation to deliver an important speech in La Paz from an aide to President Gonzales. Like most everyone else in the novel, she regards Vincenzo as a political power broker, where, in fact, he is mostly a mirror, reflecting the expectations of others.
Mountford’s elegant wit makes this novel something of a romp. A look at CNN, for example: “Everyone was afraid of rogue waves, flu pandemics, texting while driving. Everyone said what they thought and everyone was wrong. Even the people who said they didn’t know anything were wrong. … There was nothing left to say, no option left but to keep talking. And so they did.” Elsewhere, he reminds us of how we like to “edit” and “crop” our memories, to reformat the truth: “Now that the image has been neatly assembled and the lighting adjusted, how are we supposed to embrace this Photoshopped ghost? Eventually, even the most enthusiastic owner has to be suspicious of its provenance.”
The prose of “The Dismal Science” is sharp and clever; it has the sound of a cynical insider confiding secrets. As a student, Vincenzo studied Renaissance Italy, Machiavelli in particular. His own planning, though, is pathetic, and if the novel has a soft spot, it may be Mountford’s willingness to let Vincenzo just bounce around. Maybe that’s the point, though. As he tells us, “Life was an insult to everyone’s plans.”
Peter Mountford will read at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis at 7 p.m. March 5.
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.