February 2005

Michael Schaub


Human Capital by Stephen Amidon

It's a scary phrase, isn't it? The business world is like the military; it specializes in cold-blooded euphemistic phrases that scare the shit out of those on the outside. Thousands of Iraqi civilians killed in the latest Bush war? That's human collateral. Human beings judged on their ability to make money for a corporation? That's human capital. Calling phrases like that "dehumanizing" is beside the point; that's the only reason the phrase exists. Who comes up with this? Does someone make money every time they're able to euphemize a human life away?

Or maybe the real question is: Who are the people whose lives are forgotten because of one man's greed? (And Martha Stewart and Leona Helmsley aside, it's almost always a man.) That's the question Stephen Amidon asks, and answers, in his latest novel, Human Capital. It's the kind of novel you can almost see young, liberal idealists ignoring, with its focus on wealthy New England WASPs and the secretive world of hedge funds, a lifestyle that's poorly understood by anyone outside the loop. Amidon understands, though, and while I don't know anything about his personal life or his tax bracket, it's doubtful that a lifelong journalist and novelist drives a BMW or sends his kids to schools with "Country Day" in the name. (You never know, though.) The rich are very different from you and me, said Fitzgerald. Yes, says Amidon, they have more problems.

I'm not sure whether it's a comparison that Amidon would appreciate (any journalist probably groans when hearing an "X is the new Y" formulation), but Amidon makes a good case for being the new Fitzgerald. Sure, Human Capital isn't quite Gatsby, but it's a solid, absorbing, inventive novel; it might not be great, not quite, but it's something more than fine. There are more than a few novelists who can dream up a disparate cast of characters, but it takes real skill to draw them each fully and believably, and even more skill to jump between points of view in a fluid, natural way. That's what Amidon does here, and it's one hell of an accomplishment.

Set in Connecticut, which seems to be the go-to locale for the privileged WASP set (see Moody's The Ice Storm, etc.), Human Capital centers around Drew Hagel, a real estate businessman whose company is spiraling downwards. He's close to defaulting on a loan, and wonders how he's going to get the money to pay for his daughter Shannon's college tuition. (It goes without saying, perhaps, that state school isn't an option for the wealthy Connecticut set.) Shannon, meanwhile, has problems of her own. Her ex-boyfriend, Jamie Manning, is a hardcore alcoholic who's given up trying to impress his father, Quint. Shannon is also trying to keep secret her relationship with Ian Warfield, a troubled stoner townie whose only contact with the WASPs is selling them groceries.

Drew Hagel sees an opportunity to make up the money he's been hemorrhaging by investing in Quint's mysterious hedge fund, which is rumored to be one of the most lucrative around. But it's not as simple as that, and it's complicated further when Shannon, Jamie and Ian become involved in a car accident that results in a serious injury. It might sound like the stuff of soap operas, but it's presented in such a brutally human way, there's no dismissing the pain and the humanity of the characters.

And the characters are pitch-perfect, drawn with care and something like beauty. Take Ian, who could have quickly descended into a stereotype: the depressed kid who's obsessed with comic books and indie rock. Of course a character like that would have panic attacks, and he does, but Amidon portrays it in the most subtle, effective way possible. And Shannon could have been a boilerplate Goth girl rebelling against her father, but she's deeper than that, unusual but not aggressively so, dissatisfied but not whiny. Novelists over 35 are usually well-advised to steer well clear of teenaged characters, but the way Amidon draws these two is a marvel.

He's also immensely gifted at creating suspense, which is hard to do under any circumstances, but even harder when the reader knows what's going to happen. And while there are little mysteries in Human Capital that aren't revealed until the end, they're nowhere near as suspenseful as the mysteries that the reader is in on. How does he do it? By making the characters, and not the plot, the focal point. Sounds simple, sure, but it's a lesson that many writers know but fail to put into practice. Amidon executes it perfectly.

The novel is full of perfectly placed details, from the descriptions of Shannon and Jamie's prep school to the tense conversation between Drew and the banker who authorized his loan. One of the most affecting scenes follows Quint's wife, who had a very brief affair with a film scholar, trying to find the condom they used before her husband or sons recover it. In a way, it's emblematic of one of the book's main themes: the different levels of panic, which is as distinct and personal in its variations as anything else.

The rich really are very different than you and me, and that only makes them more difficult to write about, at least without being snide, patronizing, or reverse-snobby. Amidon avoids all these pitfalls in this truly excellent novel. He's proven himself to be something above a writer who bears watching, he's a writer who bears following. By
all means, follow him.

Human Capital by Stephen Amidon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374173508
384 Pages