It’s only May, but I’m nominating Undermoney as the Best Novel of the Year. Yes, Erica Ferencik’s Girl in Ice is right up there too, but Newman’s absorbing 480-page tome triumphs over anything I’ve read in quite a while. I think Newman is telling a very forthright tale about the world we live in, corruptly misconfigured by those with power and money who obsessively care only for more and more money and more and more power. It’s a vulgar tale told in the thin guise of fiction, unglamorously. It’s the story of the emperor without clothes, just as Hans Christian Anderson told it so many years ago.
The Wall Street Journal said of Undermoney, “What happens when the world’s biggest hedge fund finds itself secretly targeted for dueling takeovers by Vladimir Putin and a CIA-backed U.S. senator running for president?” Jay Newman should know, after spending 40 years in hedge funds and international finance. He guided the country of Argentina, which had defaulted on a loan, to a $2.4B settlement with hedge fund Elliott Management. The man has been there, has done that, and has the chops to write a story about it.
Newman says he was compelled to write Undermoney (think about that word a while) for the following two reasons. (Direct quotations from the author appear below in italics.)
“Hedge funds have remarkable flexibility and power.” And “The world is a complete mess.” Newman was a hard-driving hedge fund manager, ergo knows what he’s writing about. I certainly count myself among those who feel that hedge funds have had a very negative impact on the world, not only in finance but in many other aspects of our lives as well because of their predatory nature. And I certainly agree that the world is a complete mess. Neither of these come as a surprise to the intelligent reader these days. What Newman does is sets them into a fictional story format which is not only easy to get immersed in, but which bears great evidence of verisilimitude.
“Crime and corruption are big business—and not at all fictional. A conservative estimate? Maybe 3–5%. That would mean $2.5–4 trillion a year. Every year.” I found myself turning to the Internet again and again to verify whether or not certain things he characterized were true to life or not. In most cases they were, for example the freeports at airports around the world where rich people can park their private plane, avoid customs, stash their treasures and keep themselves from public scrutiny. Such examples abound, but consider another one: “In the popular mind, lying was what law firms did in exchange for their four-figure-per-hour fees. Double ditto for the banks, which the public has viewed as crooked since the Medici Bank failed in 1494.” Just how utterly vile the world has become is humiliating to those who would strive to imbue life with higher meaning, if not moral and ethical values.
“I spent decades chasing deadbeat sovereigns and individuals, asking that they pay what they owed. The world would be even more of a jungle than it is if there were no rule of law.” In Undermoney, the rule of law seems noticeably absent most of the time. CIA operatives Greta and Don have no qualms about diverting billions of dollars in U.S. aid money to support a renegade Presidential candidate. Fyodor Volk, a Russian operative, blithely blows up the Holland Tunnel, murdering thousands of commuters in the second-worst terrorist attack on US soil. And Elias Vicker, head of a ruthless hedge fund, relishes in all this mayhem in order to make more billions upon millions of dollars.
Yes, this is quite a novel, one I won’t soon forget, espcially for the true story about the Saudi shiek who travels with his camels in the back of his Boeing 747.