by Douglas Kennedy
Little, Brown, pounds 12.99, 352pp
DOUGLAS KENNEDY messes with our assumptions about the professional classes. From a journalist facing kangaroos and kidnap in The Dead Heart to a yuppie lawyer's dramatic downshifting in The Big Picture, he takes settled careers and mangles them. In his third novel, he has attempted the ferociously difficult task of painting a sympathetic portrait of Corporate Man. Ned Allen, an ambitious but essentially decent advertising manager for a computer magazine, finds his sophisticated, debt-fuelled Manhattan lifestyle whisked from under him when the magazine is bought by an asset- stripping conglomerate.
A tantalising glimpse of fast-track promotion and untold wealth evaporates as Ned, forced to make a series of tough decisions, allows a sense of humanity to influence his judgement. Retribution for this fundamental failing is swift and relentless. The magazine is closed and Ned, betrayed and jobless, assaults his boss in a moment of blind rage.
Unemployable in the computing world, debts spiralling, marriage on the rocks, Ned takes what looks like an ideal job marketing the launch of a private equity fund on behalf of Jack Ballantine, best-selling author of motivational handbooks. This proves to be no more than a cover for a money-laundering operation. Ned's plummet into the business netherworld leads inexorably to blackmail, murder and an imaginative and witty pay- off.
Kennedy has wickedly inventive fun with the adspeak and acronyms of this enclosed world. He has produced a deeply satisfying widescreen thriller with a plot that barely pauses for breath and a cast of quirky, believable characters.
Better yet, underlying the superb satire on downsizing and managerial psychobabble is a serious and thoughtful novel; not so much Death of a Salesman as a fable of all the clammy anxieties and clawing insecurities of modern life. Recommended for all those who have ever wondered what "flexibility" and "modern working" really mean.