"Everyone was supposed to have money," thinks the anxious, ambitious young man in Saul Bellow's 1956 classic, "Seize the Day." In fiction, no good end comes to somebody so openly cash-obsessed. So about a half-century later, when the hero of Peter Mountford's "A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism" thinks "he needed to have enough money to be done with the issue of money forever," the hubris is so obvious the line practically vibrates.
But Mountford's emotionally observant debut has a few surprises to offer. For one, its hero, Gabriel, is no stereotypically desperate money-grubber. A twenty-something eager to escape a dead-end journalism job, he takes an entry-level position at a hedge fund, which sends him to La Paz to note the political winds and report back on their financial implications. Bolivia is practically meaningless in the firm's big picture: "You'll baby-sit the basket cases," his new boss tells him. But it's a way to reconnect with his Latin American roots, and besides, how many baby-sitting gigs drop five figures a month into your bank account?
In such stories, money is supposed to transform character. Mountford understands that what money really does is amplify it. From the start Gabriel is callow and a little easily led, ensnared in a fling with a middle-aged journalist and fumbling his way toward understanding the country's economic players. His talent for lying makes him fairly successful at his job, but as he pursues a more sincere relationship with the press secretary of the country's president-elect, his lies become harder to shake off.
So what's to like about a novel whose main character is preternaturally deceitful? Mountford sketches La Paz's everyday life in careful detail, in scenes that at times recall Graham Greene's tales of fish-out-of-water interlopers. More dramatically, the book underscores the connection between money and violence: In a powerful street protest scene, Gabriel learns firsthand that changing economic fortunes sometimes entails a body count.
Increasingly paranoid about his financial fate, Gabriel pursues an unsupervised and risky bet in the closing chapters. The details are complicated, but that only helps drive home Mountford's point that money has a tricky way of taking over one's life however hard we resist. In Bolivia, Gabriel recognizes that he's on the very upper end of the global class ladder: He "was fretting over his position, measured in centimeters, as the upper rim of the Grand Canyon," Mountford writes. Yet without making easy moral judgments, Mountford shrewdly exposes how we need more when we already have plenty.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.