Mike Kueber's Blog

February 27, 2013

Sunday Book Review #99 – Ghosts of Manhattan by Douglas Brunt

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 6:13 pm
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Ghosts of Manhattan by Douglas Brunt received a spot on my reading list because Brunt appeared on Imus in the Morning and several people on the show commented on what a good read it was.  Plus, his wife is FOX anchorwoman Megyn Kelly.

Although I was led to believe that the story revolved around the financial meltdown of Wall Street, the story actually preceded the meltdown by a few months.  It did, however, focus on the lifestyle of the Wall Street traders and bond salesmen in the months leading up to meltdown.

I have always been fascinated by life in Manhattan, and when you add the glamour of young men with seven-figure salaries, and I am easy to satisfy.  But Brunt does much more in his first novel, with really good writing.

I remember a friend/co-worker who grew up in Brooklyn and taught me to love good writing.  Marv Leibowitz would sometimes point to examples in Maureen Dowd’s NY Times columns.  As I was reading Ghosts, I started noticing Brunt’s writing wit, and when I was about halfway through the book, I noticed an especially good piece:

  • Nick Farmer, our hero, and his wife Julia are having problems, primarily because his job as a Wall Street trader is robbing him of his humanity.  One day, after their first sex in more than a week, Nick compliments Julia by telling her, “You’re even more beautiful today than the day we met.”  Her response – “It’s like you’re caught up in the bad crowd of an eighth-grade class. Some of the people you run around with at least actually are almost adolescent.  You’re thirty-five, Nick.  Thirty-five!”  She’s screaming now.   This feels out of nowhere and I wonder what cue I’ve missed.  She takes a breath and hesitates.  “You were a better man when we met than you are today.  How do you like that?  You think I’ve gotten more beautiful?  I think you’ve gotten more ridiculous.”  Powerful.

That’s when I started highlighting the really good stuff so that I could save it here:

  • A co-worker that Nick despises, Oliver, asks Julia a solicitous question about one of her decorating clients, which causes Nick to realize that he had never indicated much of an interest in his wife’s decorating business – “Even through my gin rinse I’m clear enough to recognize that I don’t know about any of Julia’s clients, let alone particular paintings they have.  I never ask and she rarely volunteers.  I realize I had been thinking of her career as one notch about a hobby.  I feel a pulse of remorse, the way I would if inadvertently cutting off a person in traffic and finding the best I can do is give a meek wave and hope it didn’t hurt anyone or wasn’t even much notices.”   Been there, done that.
  • Julia later tells a heart-rending story, and the despicable Oliver warmly calls her “such a romantic.”  The drunken Nick rejects that sentiment – “She’s not romantic.  Julia is always in control.  Romance is giving yourself over to emotion and losing control.   When your heart takes over your mind.  When you do things not out of logic or reason, but out of passion.  You know she lost her virginity her senior year in high school.  How do you suppose it happened?  It wasn’t to some boy she had been dating and fallen in love with, or even didn’t love but was lusting to have sex with.  It wasn’t even on a night when she’d had too much to drink and things went too far.  It was because she knew she was going to college the next year and she wanted to have that experience before she went.  The whole thing was a logically laid-out plan to prepare herself, and she knew a guy well enough to do the job.”  Nick later recognizes that he acted like a sociopath.
  • When Nick first starts entertaining doubts about an affair between Julia and scum Oliver – “I have an awful tightness in my stomach and groin.  I know the feeling has nothing to do with Oliver.  He’s irrelevant.  He’s a single utensil at a great banquet.  He can fawn on Julia all he wants, but he’s not of her caliber.”  I’ve felt the same way about a rival before.  Of course, if Julia had such high standards, what was she doing with Nick in the first place?  It’s interesting how Nick can dismiss a rival so easily even though that rival had earlier proven to be the alpha male at the dinner table
  • When Nick arrived his nephew’s birthday party, his brother-in-law asks him to help retrieve some refreshments from the fridge, and Nick responds – “Sure.  If you have a mop, I can do the kitchen floor.  Maybe sweep out the garage.  I must have missed the part of the invitation that said this is a barn raising.”  As I say this, I realize I must be in a worse mood than I thought.  But the fact is I do hate people that host a party, then hand out chores to arriving guests.  “Hasn’t anyone ever told you that you can hire people who come over and do this sort of thing so your guests can actually be guests?”  Pretty spoiled, I’d say, but funny.   
  • When Nick explains to his sister Sue that his job is changing him into a bad person, Sue tells him – “Nick.  You’re focused on the wrong thing.  People’s lives are the way they are because of the choices they make.  So before you focus on the job as the issue, you need to focus on you as the issue.  What is it about you that got you here?”  Good insight.
  • Co-worker Jack tells Nick that 35 is a good age for having kids – “There are real advantages to starting at this age.  When you divorce, you can date a gal twenty years younger and she’s still plenty older than your kids.”  Great insight.
  • Nick describes the CEO’s assistant – “When he’s not around Dale Brown, he assumes the full authority of the office of the president to throw his weight around and acts like a jackass.  When he is around Dale Brown, he acts like a manservant.”  I’ve known guys just like that.     
  • When the CEO is given the bad news about the company’s inevitable downfall – “Dale knows that Freddie is brilliant and he also knows that he himself is incapable of grasping the analysis in Freddie’s report.  The root of his disdain for Freddie is fear.  Dale’s belief system about success is that men get ahead on guts, vision, and persuasion.  Freddie doesn’t lead; he’s someone you pay a salary to play a supporting role.  If Freddie challenges this belief, Dale will defend himself in the way insecure people in authority do.”  Good insight.
  • When a loser subordinate accused of raping a hooker asks Nick to be a character witness, Nick says, “If you want a character reference, try your fiancé.”  “Nick, I can’t.  She can’t know about this.”  He pauses.  “Oh, were you kidding?”  “No.”  This sounds like an exchange between Ugarte and Bogart in Casablanca.
  • When Nick starts thinking he could lose Julia – “I’m about to lose this woman.  She’s on her way out of my life.  We’re no longer two people in love but two people held together by a contract without the magic that makes you see the other person in a generous light.  That spell is broken.”  So true.
  • When Oliver’s wife Sybil brags about Oliver helping an alcoholic abuser – “Rehab is for quitters.  I think Keith Richards said that.”  Cute.
  • When describing his milquetoast dad (a cardiologist) compared to his domineering mother – “We wrap up the conversation in a bow.  He’s a kind man, but Mom is the dominant person.  I think every kid needs to like at least one of his parents, so I suppose I’m lucky to have him.”  Kind of cold, but I know the feeling.
  • When Julia is kicking Nick out of their apartment – “I want to ask if she means forever or just for now.  Even if she means just for now, once I’m gone, she’ll probably feel such relief that she’ll realize she means forever, so it’s better not to ask and make her face the question yet.”  My mind sometimes works like that.

I enjoyed those pieces so much that I decided to skim the first part of the book again to see if I could find any of the earlier gems:

  • During Nick and Julia’s first dinner date with scum Oliver and his lame wife Sybil, Julia asks Oliver where he went to college – “I already knew the answer.  Oliver somehow finds a way to let people know within five minutes of meeting him, with all the energy and unabashed praise of a proud parent except directed toward himself.  Julia had just saved him the conversational maneuvering to get there.  ‘New Haven.’  Christ, here we go.  This clown is right out of a Salinger novel.  There’s nothing worse that  people who say New Haven or Cambridge,  pretending to be too modest to say Yale and Harvard when all they’re looking to do is draw the whole thing out.  The false modesty is irritating and shows a total lack of self-awareness of what an insecure snob he really is.  Just say Harvard or Yale and move on.  Don’t invite additional questions so you have to put on your uncomfortable act when pressed to answer the name of the school.  Loser.  Hasn’t Oliver accomplished anything more in life to be proud of than a high SAT score when he was 17.  ‘New Haven?’ asks Julia.  ‘Yale.’  Sybil steps in for Oliver with a smile and pats him on the knee, like a routine they’ve practiced for years.”  I need to be careful about this because I sometimes modestly provide the same response when asked where I went to law school – i.e., Austin.  Duh, nothing modest about that.
  • While teasing a subordinate about his 3-button suits, Nick says – “Stylish?  That crap will be in the back of your closet in a few years and you’ll be embarrassed you ever wore it.  Better to be classic than stylish – it’s the difference between Mick Jagger and Huey Lewis.”  Cute.
  • When Nick was sent away to boarding school as a young kid – “I was scared to death and remember standing on the platform with my bags on the ground under my hands, staring at them, when tears started to fill to the brim of my eyelids, enough that my mother could notice.  She looked disappointed and a little rushed to get to her [Broadway] show.  She put her hands on her hips and leaned forward and said, ‘Stop playing the victim, Nicholas.  Not attractive.’”  No wonder there was no love lost between Nick and his mom.
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