Shelby Tucker, an anglicised American lawyer in his seventies who recently hitch-hiked in Afghanistan and Iran, is a brilliant lunatic, the kind of saintly outsider who sees through the communal delusions of our era. His first non-fiction book, about being kidnapped by Communist insurgents in the Burmese jungle, was hailed by Colin Thubron as "a surreal mixture of Boy's Own derring-do and expert knowledge". Now he has written a novel.
Tucker's first fiction takes on the empty promises of the world financial system in a coruscating satire that manipulates a cast of hundreds in several continents. As a Postscript points out, the book's central organism, a labyrinthine scam called World of Finance, caricatures IOS, the mutual funds business set up by Bernie Cornfeld in the 1960s with slogans like "Do you sincerely want to be rich?" That fraudulent bubble burst in bankruptcies.
But Client Service is equally relevant to the 21st-century near-collapse of the banking system. The names of the crooked financiers, including Clovis Hoof, Pierre Sansloy, Henri Sansjoy and the "legal counsel and master of detail" Sleek McCool tell their own story. Crooked language is at the heart of the relentless expansion of World of Finance. Floating on cunningly crafted slogans, its 15,000-strong fleet of salesmen/dupes expands through over 100 countries to suck in character after character, from "Bone" Saxon, the honest American football player invalided out of sport, to desperately keen Indian Harbinder Govinda, whose briefcase ends up the sea. Harbinder has learned the hard way that "entering the Maritime Market" means trying to sell the Fenner Biddup Offshore Fund to enraged deckhands in Mumbai. No one is too poor to escape the attentions of the "WoFers", a swarm of parasites who sow the corruption of infinite hope and subsequent despair. Evelyn Waugh's influence shows in Tucker's brief, sharp vignettes and in the way he makes the reader deduce inner emotion from external details.
But the genius of this ambitious subject is all his own, as are his glimpses of the beautiful natural universe against which tiny human beings prance, the sky above them "robin's egg blue turning to silver''. This book is a rarity, at once deeply serious and absurdly enjoyable, once you get over the sheer weirdness of the financial world. Read it now, before the next wave of irrational exuberance drowns us all.
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