The latest book from Sabin Willett (“The Betrayal,“ “The Deal“) reads very much like a “Bonfire of the Vanities“ for the new millennium. Small wonder, then, that he has earned comparisons to Tom Wolfe for his keen eye, satiric point of view and steadily-guided wordsmithing when it comes to turning a spotlight on early-21st-century sensibilities.
“Present Value“ is Willett‘s newest and best effort to date. The book fairly crackles with energy and wit, evoking not only the spirit of Wolfe, but also of Jonathan Franzen (“The Corrections“) and Kurt Andersen (“Turn of the Century“). On the back cover, alongside testimonials from Mario Cuomo and Ken Auletta, Andersen himself opines that “If you love to hate lawyers, psychotherapists, political correctness, suburban oppressiveness, Blackberrys, CEOs, and/or CFOs; if you have a taste for tales of corporate intrigue told from the inside out; or if you enjoy dead-on 21st century comedies of manners, then Present Value is your book.“ Well put, indeed.
This is the tale of power couple Fritz and Linda Brubaker, for whom a perfect marriage is at the crux of their have-it-all lifestyle. Gym-built and always impeccably groomed, Fritz is an executive at a Fortune 100 toy company, and Linda is a million-dollar-a-year corporate attorney. Their two privileged children attend private school close to their home in a tony Boston suburb, and the quartet summers on Nantucket Island. Luxury SUVs and high tech computers, cell phones, beepers and Blackberry PDAs all keep things humming along, until a fateful day when their cushy world gets turned upside down.
Before that, though, Willett gives the reader a headfirst plunge into the waters of the Brubaker‘s lifestyle by describing the process for retrieving “precious cargo,“ a.k.a. children:
“HEAT! The heat was steamy and suffocating, a humid pall that anticipated the dawn and left everyone a little sluggish, a little vulnerable. It was so hot that the day itself seemed dazed, as though it had got lost from July somehow, made a wrong turn off the calendar, then wandered fitfully in the ether until it stumbled into September. In the suburbs west of Boston that Monday morning, it was not autumn at all; there was no hint or whisper of New England charm to come, nothing of the crisp anticipation of a new school year. It was just a sizzler -- a white-sky mugging.
And in the car-pool lane at the Chaney School, it was Cairo at noontime. “Car-pool lane“ was one of the school‘s many charming euphemisms, for there wasn‘t much pooling evident. The fewer the kids, the bigger the vehicle. The SUVs idled in rank, pumping out pizza-oven blasts of superheated exhaust, inching forward toward the alcove, where each would discharge from seventy-eight cubic feet of cargo space its seven cubic feet of Precious Cargo.
At just after eight a.m., behind the wheel of his wife‘s forest-green 2001 Lincoln Navigator, Fritz Brubaker took his place at the back of the line. In front of the Navigator was a shiny black Chevrolet Yukon XL with a 2500 cc Vortex engine, its powerful air conditioner cooling Precious Cargo by means of an asphalt-melting heat transfer from the tailpipe. In front of the Yukon was a white Mercedes SUV; in front of the Mercedes a Suburban, in front of the Suburban a pearl-gray Range Rover, in front of the Range Rover an Audi A6 all-wheel-drive Quattro feeling smugly and environmentally righteous in this brigade of half-tracks, and in front of the Audi a line of seven-foot SUVs broken only once by a minivan that looked as though it were being held hostage.
They didn‘t wait impatiently, mind you -- they advanced smartly, even eagerly, the moment they could, but not impatiently. No impatience would be expressed as the SUV at the front of the line stopped at the alcove and the driver hopped down from the front seat; none as she (usually but not always, either Mom or the nanny) came around to the passenger side to unbelt the cargo with a cheery wave to the vehicle behind; none as she greeted the welcome teacher (this morning it was Mavis Potemkin, one of the team-teaching second-grade pair); certainly no one would express vehicular urgency as the parent straightened the Patagonia backpack on the child‘s shoulders (the backpack must be an approved backpack: while the $79.99 JanSport would do in a pinch, a good parent really ought to spring for the $109 Patagonia number); no one in line would be so gauche as to rev a three-hundred-horsepower engine as the parent checked the water bottle (children must be properly hydrated at all times); and then, perhaps most important of all, as the line of idling SUVs pumped remorseless cubic meters of carbon monoxide into the hot morning air, no impatience would be expressed as the parent escorted the Precious Cargo thirty feet across the gravel and through the doorway of Fielding Hall.“
The catalyst for rocking Fritz‘s world comes when his company‘s stock takes a plunge and he is arrested for insider trading. This is not acceptable to wife Linda‘s image-conscious legal firm, and she, in turn, is suspended, leading to the house being repossessed and the kids unable to cope with the family‘s sudden fall from grace. The speed with which their lives unravel is frightening, and by the time Fritz demands that Linda turn off her Blackberry to discuss the shaky foundation on which their lives have been built, you know that things will never be the same again. And if they could be, should they?
“Present Value“ is a provocative roller-coaster of a read, and Willett‘s own insider knowledge of legal and financial machinations (he‘s a lawyer) is enhanced by his witty takes on our post-9-11 world and considerable prowess at crafting characters one comes to care about despite not wanting to. Without ever preaching, he subtly steers the action into a fine morality tale about what it takes to re-evaluate priorities to find real substance and joy in life. In a year that produced an impressive amount of outstanding works of fiction and non-fiction, “Present Value“ is a tome with its feet equally balanced in both camps, and highly entertaining on top of that. Put it on your list to get to soon.
Sachs‘ mystery published
Harley L. Sachs, whose work has appeared frequently in the Express, has published the second in his series of “cozy mysteries“ set in an Oregon retirement building, “The Mystery Club and the Dead Doctor.“
In the book, Mystery Club member Viola Cartwright asks two of her friends to
investigate her Medicare bills and discovers a case of fraud. But they
also suspect that Viola‘s home helper is using a stolen identity. One
thing leads to another and soon, a murder. As the mystery club women
discover, there are consequences to their apparently harmless acts of
The book was inspired by Sachs‘ participation in the Elders in Action
program against Medicare fraud. “The Mystery Club and the Dead Doctor“ is
available only off the internet at www.WingsPress.com. The first in the
series, “The Mystery Club Solves a Murder“ is also available as an ebook
from Wings Press and in paperback from The Idea Development Company, 113
W. Houghton Ave, Houghton, MI 49931.