The Dismal Science

By Peter Mountford


Tin House Books
February 2014


Reviewed by Tyler McMahon


In his follow-up to 2011's A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism, Peter Mountford again writes of a wayward economist at a moral crossroads. This time, the protagonist is Vincenzo d'Orsi, a 54-year-old vice-president at the World Bank. When The Dismal Science opens, Vincenzo has already lost his wife to a tragic accident. He struggles to stay close with his grown daughter Leonara, who's now living in New York with a restaurant job, a shiftless boyfriend, and a growing number of tattoos. Vincenzo's career—the most stable mooring left in his life—likewise begins to unravel.

It's 2005; Paul Wolfowitz has assumed leadership of the World Bank. Vincenzo becomes the subject of partisan forces from within—and the object of anti-globalization protests from without—and finds it increasingly difficult to simply do his job. A minor row with a colleague over a Bolivian aid package soon snowballs into a matter of pride, and Vincenzo can't let it go. He contacts Walter—his oldest friend and a Washington Post reporter—and the two of them orchestrate an elaborate self-sabotage that masquerades as a principled stand against the Bank. Vincenzo quits his job, and Walter files his story.

Walter's headline reads: "World Bank VP Questions U.S. Role." The article that follows paints Vincenzo as an idealist, questioning the Bank's policy direction, particularly in Bolivia. Somewhat accidentally, he stumbles to the threshold of becoming a liberal commentator/thinker/talking head. Walter is convinced that one bold move to the left would seal the deal for Vincenzo, opening doors at the Tellus Institute or a similar high-profile organization. Walter makes contact with Evo Morales's people in Bolivia, and Vincenzo is invited to come to La Paz and give a speech on the eve of Evo's election as president. Almost immediately, Vincenzo feels conflicted about his resignation:

The waves of shame came and went, interspersed by successful and semi-successful campaigns to assure himself that he'd done an honorable thing for Bolivia, for the Bank, a thing that would, in the long run, also benefit his life enormously. He'd obliterated one version of his life, yes, one that had endured for a long time, yes, but in so doing had created space for something else.

As the dust settles, it becomes painfully obvious to both the reader and Vincenzo that his subconscious motivation may have simply been to impress Leonara. The poignant moment in which she calls—"Wow, Dad, you are a badass!"—is the only time where it all briefly makes sense.

From there, the complications pile up. Originally from Milan, Vincenzo risks becoming an undocumented immigrant if he's unemployed—a situation that would strain his already stretched relationship with Leonara. He takes an interview with Lehman Brothers in New York, and finds that he likes the idea of working in high finance (as well as being closer to his daughter). But Walter—that part-angel, part-devil always perched upon Vincenzo's shoulder—insists that a move to Wall Street would squander the capital Vincenzo won by quitting, and that the path to the liberal policy institutes runs straight through Bolivia.

The stakes suddenly rise when Vincenzo is visited by a mysterious fellow named Ben, from an unidentified government agency, who wants to discuss options. Ben says he can offer help, but warns that if Vincenzo doesn't cooperate, there will be consequences: "Your life would become immediately annoying: U.S. Visa out, problems with credit cards, rumors—I don't know, that kind of thing. It's easy for us, and we find it effective."

This should be the tipping point in Vincenzo's dilemma, the straw that sends him straight to Lehman Brothers and the New York life that he seems to want. But the same stubborn prideful streak—the one that led him to quit the World Bank in the first place—resurfaces. Vincenzo decides to go to Bolivia, now with the absurd notion that he might be able to do so "quietly," and somehow stay on the good side of Lehman Brothers, The Tellus Institute, Walter, Ben, his daughter, and Evo Morales.

In both of his novels, Mountford pulls off impressive feats of empathy: he creates compelling characters out of self-interested economists, and makes the nuances of financial policy—the "dismal science" of the book's title—accessible to lay readers. A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism riffs on the expat novel; its hero, young Gabriel de Boya, was endearing in his youth and recklessness, his brazen desire to "make a shitload of money for a while." Vincenzo has a different sort of appeal, but is perhaps even more likeable. One of the novel's great successes is how well it renders middle age. Physically, Vincenzo thinks of himself this way: "he'd gone bald in his thirties, had too-large eyes and had always thought his face Avian, if not downright villainous: he was dagger-nosed and hollow-cheeked, with a wide thin mouth." But in a bigger way, Vincenzo's crisis is about finding his life most of the way over, and accepting that he doesn't have all that much control over what's left of it.

When I read Mountford's work, I can't help but think of him as a sort of bizzaro Aaron Sorkin. Where Sorkin is domestic, romantic, and hopeful, Mountford is international, bleak, and cynical. Their similarity is in the zeal and energy with which they both engage our life and times. Both writers bring a Shakespearean brand of intrigue (and witty dialogue) to the day's news, focusing on behind-the-scenes orchestrations rather than spotlights. Both obliterate the notion that complexities of character or language are somehow removed from politics and economics.

Mountford reminds us that one of the novelist's first duties involves keeping his antennae up, telling us something about the motions and machinations of our age. Mountford does all this with pace, wit, and a keen sense of dramatic tension—always ratcheting up the pressure on poor Vincenzo. As was the case with The Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism, the intelligence of The Dismal Science is matched only by its readability.