Eat What You Kill by Ted Scofield focuses on Wall Street schemer Evan Stoess who must ask himself how far he is willing to go and how much money is enough (available March 25, 2014).
In the March/April 2012 issue of CFA Magazine, journalist Sherree DeCovney dropped what should’ve been a bombshell, but instead just confirmed what many Americans had long suspected of the financial industry: an estimated 10% of the people on Wall Street are psychopaths. Psychologists Ronald Schouten and James Silver rushed to assure us that figure may be a little high, and at least another 15% are probably only “almost psychopaths.”
Eat What You Kill is a study of one of them.
Evan Stoess, our…well, perhaps not “hero,” but central character, is a young man with a flat-out-busted moral compass, a bellyful of Ayn Rand and a chip on his shoulder the size of Michael Heizner’s Levitated Mass. A child of the epitome of trailer trash, he managed to get into an exclusive prep school (marking him as an abused outsider in both rich and poor worlds) and then Business School. Given his proclivities, a position at Equity Capital Management, a Wall Street bucket shop, is almost inevitable. His goals are simple:
…Evan aspired to much more. Evan wanted to be, needed to be, filthy, guiltlessly rich. It was Rand 101: Men who apologize for being rich will not remain rich for long.
Author Ted Scofield knows this world cold. Both an MBA and JD, Scofield has been an entrepreneur, legal advisor to Wall Street firms, advisor on equity and debt issuance, and a lecturer at Vanderbilt University, his alma mater. His prose is brisk – I read this novel in one day – his descriptions just right in terms of length and vividness, and his characterizations clear and persuasive.
According to DeCovney (and Schouten and Silver), financial psychopaths (like the regular serial-killer-next-door variety) “…generally lack empathy and interest in what other people feel or think. At the same time, they display an abundance of charm, charisma, intelligence, credentials, an unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation, and a drive for thrill seeking.” All of which describes Evan to a T.
The thing is, while he’s great at this stuff, he’s a bit too impatient to do his job (assistant analyst) well, as we discover when he costs ECM a ton of money on an under-researched investment undone by a seemingly random event. Cast out into the cold, Evan gets a second chance with Contrafund, an investment firm that takes short positions on companies it thinks are going down. Evan’s qualities come in very handy there as he scrambles up the ladder via lies, blackmail, extortion, and ultimately, murder.
For example, Evan’s approach to landing a new job probably isn’t what they teach at Harvard (but, who knows?):
…Evan secured an interview by blackmailing ECM’s philandering human resources manager. He had to follow Mr. Jean Deburau after work for only three nights before discovering his unattractive but easily impressed indiscretion. A phone call to the poor sot elicited an exhilarating surge of adrenaline, followed by a placid period of euphoria. If Evan had a therapist, it would have made perfect sense.
Yes, Evan is a completely amoral monster, but we find out how he came to be this way, and it makes a certain amount of sense. While it’s really hard to root for Evan, it’s pretty easy to get caught up in his machinations and to enjoy tagging along with his ride to master-of-the-universe status.
Part of this is because most everyone else in his world is also an utter shit in one way or another, so we don’t feel too bad when Evan screws them over. Likewise, his companies are at least as sociopathic as he is. He doesn’t seem so awful by comparison – at least he rarely pretends to be anything other than a predator. At the bottom of it, Evan is a religious fanatic, and his God is the apostle of selfishness, Ayn Rand:
“A disciple,” Evan replied. “As are you. Few mere students know Anthem.”
“It’s the only religion that has ever made sense to me,” Evan continued.
“It’s a belief system, like any other. Neither you nor I can prove it’s right but no one can prove it’s wrong. I have faith.
“God or no god, I must have faith in its truth, in its power to guide me, in its power to define me, to transform me. You probably do too, or you wouldn’t believe. That’s religion in my book.”
It’s hard to imagine this story existing outside the milieu of high finance and Wall Street. Financial skullduggery is bound into its DNA. The business-speak flies thick and fast, and Scofield will often let it zoom past without interrupting the flow to explain what exactly is going on, trusting you to either get the gist by context or to keep Wikipedia open in the background. The executive offices, traders’ desks, analysts’ cubicles, and the banter/abuse between the people in them all ring with been-there-done-that realism.
Not everything is high-margin here, though. The accumulation of self-satisfaction, snobbery, mendacity, and naked greed can put you off your feed on occasion. Evan’s climb into the 1% (and then the 0.1%) immerses us in the shallow, label-obsessed world of the nouveau riche; its portrayal reeks of authentic observation on the part of the author, but it’s easy to drown in the downpour of brand names and offhand references to the au courant bistros and boutiques of New York and Paris. I also have reservations about the ending, which seems out of keeping with the story’s overall tone.
Eat What You Kill is a rare bird: a business psychological thriller that’s both tightly bound to the business world and genuinely entertaining. Love him or (more likely) hate him, Evan is fascinating to watch, and as with Mike Offitt’s Nothing Personal, by the end you’ll understand better how 2007 happened…and why it’ll probably happen again, sooner rather than later.
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Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. His international thriller Doha 12 and near-future thriller South feature characters who would cheerfully feed Evan Stoess though a wood chipper…and some of those are the good guys. He tweets (@lcharnes) about scuba diving, shipwrecks, art crime and archaeology, among other things.