By Dana Vachon
Riverhead. 290 pp. $24.
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Reviewed by Karen Heller
Inquirer Staff Writer
nolead ends Dana Vachon is this season's publishing It boy. We know this because, in the insulated, catty world of New York publishing, Vachon has incurred a serious amount of envy with an attendant helping of schadenfreude. It doesn't help that Vachon is young (28), with an impressive advance ($650,000 plus "high six figures" for the movie rights) and - rarer still in these circles - good-looking with a generous head of hair.
His debut novel, Mergers and Acquisitions, owes a substantial debt to Bright Lights, Big City. And indeed, there's Jay McInerney himself on the dust jacket, lending assistance: "a witty and entertaining immorality tale," he assures us. Mergers, written in the first person, not BLBC's second, is a witty, breezy book with a distinct voice, a doleful back story (a dead brother instead of mother), and its own Tad Allagash in the form of über-cool Roger Thorne. Given that the books were published 23 years apart, a few behavioral distinctions exist: Thorne is partial to Grey Goose and calling everyone "dude," an updating of Tad's cocaine and "coach."
Mergers' narrator and hero, Thomas Quinn, is admitted into the prestigious training program at J.S. Spenser (with the more prone-to-success Thorne), much as Vachon was admitted to the training program at JPMorgan. (While there, Vachon authored the popular and anonymous blog, D-Nasty.) Though included in the inner social sanctum of Manhattan and its environs, Quinn asserts that he retains outsider status - requisite for first-person narrators - as a Catholic, a wafer that's hard to swallow in the wake of such society swans as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and the late Patricia Buckley.
Quinn is immediately smitten with the patrician, seriously blond, yet emotionally porcelain Frances Sloan, all comparisons to Daisy/Zelda unavoidable as is her inexorable slide to despair, self-immolation and, embracing current masochism trends, self-mutilation. (It's easy to see Gwyneth Paltrow as Frances except that, as these things happen, she's now altogether too old.)
Such happiness can't last, not in a comic novel trying to be equally entertaining and moving. That's a difficult though laudable goal, which Vachon routinely thwarts. Frances never quite breathes, the way Vachon's vast cast of funnier, secondary characters do. Quinn's adored, perfect older brother, the Joe Jr. to his Teddy, died at prep school from eating an egg roll (peanut allergy), a plot point that does not improve through multiple retellings.
Vachon is at his best as a satirical anthropologist, noting the habits of the successful, and the book is studded with wicked aperçus. "It was a nice place. If the world is just buildings and people, this was at least a pretty building full of pretty people," he observes of a summer gathering at a Rhode Island country club. "The porch was alive with the chatter and vapor of sweating men in blazers and pastel ties, their wives dressed up (by way of trying to appear dressed down) in linen and cotton of white and green and pink, their shoulders bare and tan, their necks and wrists aflame with gold and diamonds."
Or this about a Spenser honcho's third wife, a suspected former Internet porn thespian. "He covered this woman and her history in cash. A nose job made her look less trashy; charitable involvements gave her the appearance of a social conscience; a personal shopper erased any sartorial evocation of her online days; a psychiatrist worked her through the trauma of it all. But money doesn't change you so much as it allows you to chase yourself around. Sooner or later you'll always pop out again."
The first half of Mergers and Acquisitions is terrific, hinting at the delivery of an assured comedy of manners, something a library could always use more of. You're just happy to be spending time in this glittering, hermetic world with such an amusing guide. But Vachon falters, as so many others have before him, in closing the deal. Last year, Marisha Pessl included everything and the kitchen disposal in Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and sank the thing under the weight of her cleverness.
Vachon believes his story must end with fireworks, long-named Latin American aristocrats (whose names reduce to puerile acronyms more befitting a Will Ferrell project), illegal narcotics, pirates, an international cast of golddiggers, and the boxer Oscar de la Hoya, producing the comic equivalent of a Beethoven fourth movement.
It's too much and, yet, the reader is astounded by the author's ambition and nerve. Mergers and Acquisitions, though not great, is eminently readable, the tone as refreshing as a sweaty glass of gin and tonic.