Frank Kane: Great idea for a book, and I know just the man to write it

I don’t often reread books, especially novels. I figure that you could never get the same page-turning intensity on the second visit, when you know what the plot and denouement are, so it’s best left alone.

However, I recently broke my rule when I got stuck into Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities for the second time in nearly 30 years.

I remembered it as a marvellous novel, an allegory of life (and death) in New York in the 1980s boom years, with heavy overtones of race, social injustice and plain old Wall Street greed as the dark backdrop.

Not much has changed, has it? I think it was the protests in the city over the death of Eric Garner in police custody that made me pick up Bonfire of the Vanities again, and I was glad I did. I’d forgotten most of the nuances, subplots and characters that made it such a work of its time, but are still spot-on today.

Rapacious bond traders who believed they were “masters of the universe”, two-faced officials desperate for votes, self-deluded lawyers working the system for their own aggrandisement, minority politicians taking up any case to ingratiate themselves to “the people”: they were all there then, and by the look of it are still there now.

Scott McCoy, the villain who turns into hero, is such a convincing figure, basically shallow and selfish but therefore well suited to banking. You feel you’ve met the type all around the world, from the canyons of Manhattan to the labyrinths of Dubai’s DIFC.

The Wall Street banker par excellence, who finds himself reduced to the level of ordinary mortals as a result of a bizarre car accident.

Anyway, I bumped into an investment banker friend of mine in the Dome Cafe in DIFC (still my regular haunt, despite the proliferation of rival attractions in the centre) and I told him I was reading the book again.

He’s a westerner who works for an Emirati bank, a good deal younger than me but a good guy who knows the vague but important rules of the source-journalist relationship.

He told me that he read Wolfe’s modern classic when he was a teenager doing A levels in sciences at school in the UK.

“I wanted to be a physicist and make important scientific discoveries, but as soon as I read Bonfire, it changed all that. It was a career in finance, or law, or nothing,” he said.

What got him about the world of finance as portrayed by Wolfe wasn’t the huge bucks on offer (which after 30 years of US inflation seem comparatively small in 2014), nor the power a “master” can wield, but the fact that they all seemed to have such interesting lives in the cockpit of the world in 1987.

“I wanted to be there, New York City, at any price,” he said.

He eventually made it, after much unglamorous labour in accounting, business administration and business law at a red-brick university in the UK. But the crash of 2009 wiped out his firm, and his job. He was part of the generation of bankers who were told to head for Dubai, Mumbai or Shanghai, anywhere but high-cost Manhattan.

“So now I’m in Dubai, and you know, I think it’s almost the way I imagine New York in the ‘80s. Exciting, interesting, fun, all the things I wanted in the first place,” he explains over an iced tea.

Dubai deserves its own version of Bonfire, but who to write it? What an interesting idea …

Published: December 16, 2014 04:00 AM


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