Spenser was the oldest, proudest bank on wall street, but it had entered into the early stages of a low decline around the time I was hired, it was in all honesty this trend toward mediocrity that best explains my hiring. – Quinn
This is not a book that teaches you on how to evaluate the worth of a company (I do have plenty of that as MBA required reading) but it is Dana Vachon’s first novel, the Wall Street satire Mergers & Acquisitions (abbreviated M&A, as the wall streets like to call it).
M&A is a fictionalised account of the moral hazards of high-status Manhattan professional life, notably of the investment bankers and high society. Part of its pitch, and the intrigue, is that it’s reality-based. The narrator is Tommy Quinn, “the worst young investment banker on Wall Street,” who, like Vachon (who’d admit only to being “very incompetent”), grew up privileged in Westchester. You can’t help but to think if this is semi-autobiographical, since Quinn works in J.S. Spenser and Vachon is an Analyst in JP Morgan. Quinn went to Georgetown; Vachon chose Duke, where he was Kappa Sigma, a political-science major, and a humour columnist. Both Quinn and Vachon got their investment-banking job thanks to their fathers’ connections. Quinn’s firm, J.S. Spenser, stands in for JPMorgan, which between Vachon’s sophomore- and junior-year internships merged into the Chase empire and on its way to a decline. It’s pretty clear Vachon thought that was the beginning of the end.
Quinn bumbles his way through the first few weeks, making friends with sex-maniac, master of winging it, Roger Thorne, and lives it up every evening with an eclectic band of young twenty-somethings, including his moneyed but psychologically damaged girlfriend Frances Sloan. There’s also Terrence Mathers, Quinn’s boss, who tells him not to worry about ethics because “people buy crap all the time … that’s how wealth is built.” There’s Vema and Vanita, two all-stars twin sisters who score high marks in every tests they were put through. There’s Sophie Dvornik, an S&M enthusiast who works at the PaceWildenstein gallery. Her big artist is Yves Grandchatte, who has tattooed which spells profanities across his fingers.
My favourite part of the book is when Quinn is assigned his first major assignment — an oil deal. Under the tutelage of a senior colleague, Makkesh Makker, Quinn’s luck, despite his inability to manoeuvre a spreadsheet formula and convert US dollar back to US dollar (instead of Canadian Dollar to USD), blew up the workstation and play a minor role in causing the death of a co-worker; got out of the whole tragedy, unscathed.
Amidst the satire, Vachon is brilliant when he offers his world weary wisdom. Some of my favourite passages are as follows:
Entre mon berceau et ma tombe, Il y a un grand zero – Between my cradle and my tomb is a big zero. You start your life with a baptism, end it with a funeral, and spend the intervening years evading the horror of the thought of the space between adding up to nothing. – page 16
Sales people had to be attractive, charming, and highly social, Since there is no PhD that confers these qualities, most openings on the sales desks were filled through back channels. The managing directors who ran things simply hired the children of friends for summer internships, and then, as long as these scions were not shown to have overt impairments or more than casual drug habits, took them on full time when they graduated. Mildly put, it was affirmative action for the already affirmed. – pg 20.
We expect too much of God and too little of ourselves. – page 46
Sometimes you get thrown together with someone, and just because of the circumstances you know what’s going on in their head, and they know what’s going on in yours. To keep this going is the real feat. Because one morning you might have a thought that leads you one way, and they might have a thought that takes them in another. And words can only do so much. Sometimes I think you can become estranged from someone without ever leaving their side. – pg 48
Half of the young women in New York think themselves European, and kiss on both cheeks when you meet them. The other half lives content in their American identities and kiss only on one cheek, if at all. So you never know where you are going to get kissed, or how many times. I’ve anticipated second kisses that never came, and found myself with puckered lips staring at some bewildered girl like a senile pervert. Other times I’ve shifted my face after the first kiss, only to receive the second awkwardly on the lips. This is how disease is spread. – pg 79
Money doesn’t change you so much as it allows you chase yourself around. Sooner or later you’ll (The old you) always pop out again. – Pg 130
Some firms on this street are not going to make it. Firms like Merrill, or Deutsche, or Citi. What you need to know is that J.S. Spenser (effectively JP Morgan) will. We are a Ferrari. This is a rough patch, but we’ll always be a Ferrari. And the guys who come out of this rough patch are going to be rewarded. So stick with it, and you can be a Ferrari too.” – pg 137
Pity, for yourself and another, can be taken as a fitting substitute for love. – pg 208
The book almost scored a maximum 5 from me, as I sniggered and laughed at every page; until 3 quarters to the book it went downhill with bizarre incidents of travelling to an exotic location and encountered a horrific experience that changes their lives (or career) forever. The immorality and moral decadence were getting a little out of hand by then and it sort of left a bad taste in my mouth after that.
What really appeals to me is Vachon’s exquisite intelligent passages — Vachon writes gorgeous sentences and describe a hilarious scene that made me laugh-out-loud, which made the novel worth my read. If you are a big fan of the wall street, you will find spot-on anecdotes from the book that you can relate to.
I have worked in an investment bank for 6 years and post-MBA had tried to make it to the big league again. On my summer internship, I got a job with American Express first and had to turn down Morgan Stanley, which both turn out not to hire anyone from my class anyway. Subsequently I walked through the trading floor of Credit Suisse London, talked on the phone with a JP Morgan alumni, interviewed with Morgan Stanley Composite Index (MSCI Barra) all with no avail. The prestige and glitters of the life of the investment bankers eludes me now, as the dream withers with each passing day. I suppose the book evoked a lot of lost dreams and painful memories. 😦
All in all, the book started with a big high for me, the sort of corporate satire about investment bankers that I love to read, but it flops at the end when Quinn and Thorne got dirtier and dirtier, and get washed up to the shore and face the music of the reality. It would have been such a great book if the drama is focused on the board rooms, instead of the bedrooms.
You will love it if you have a love-hate relationship with wallstreet, bankers or JP Morgan. 😉
Paperback. [Arrow books 2008],[290 pages],[Contemporary New York Manhattan], Library Loot, Finished reading at 27 August 2010.
About the writer:
Dana Vachon was born in Greenwich, Connecticut, raised in Chappaque, New York, and graduated from Duke University – as he claims, ‘cum nihil’ – in 2002. After graduation, he worked as an analyst at JPMorgan. His writing has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Men’s Vogue, the New York Times and Salon. He lives in New York City.
Vachon first became known for DNasty, the anonymous blog he wrote from Morgan, which Elizabeth Spiers linked to on the blog she wrote at the time for New York Magazine. Exactly two weeks later, the agent David Kuhn—a former editor at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker—heard about it at a party and sent him an e-mail and they met for a drink. “Everybody thinks the blog birthed the book, but that’s not totally true,” Vachon says. “But the blog definitely birthed David.”