" Bombardiers," by Po Bronson. 319 pages. New York: Random House. $22
Poor, naive Sidney Geeder.
Geeder thinks his firm, the Atlantic Pacific Corporation, is going to turn belly up when the market discovers how flimsy its RTC bonds are. Geeder thinks that the SEC will come storming in like the A-team when it finds out Atlantic Pacific is propping up both sides of the market on its Romanian investment deal. At the very least, Geeder thinks he can walk away cold with a few million bucks as soon as his company shares mature.
Sid Geeder is, of course, dead wrong.
That's because the system of high-finance capitalism Po Bronson satirizes in his debut novel, "Bombardiers," has little concern for its servants. The bond salesmen and women of Atlantic Pacific are saddled with impossibly high quotas, whipped into a frenzy by high-strung managers, and then ridden to the bone for every last dishonest penny the company can take.
"Bombardiers" is, in a word, brilliant. In a few more words, it's devastatingly funny, as wise as any Wall Street guru, and bitter as a cup of jet-black coffee.
Po knows all the secret vices of America's business community: Material greed, sexism, the machine mentality, and the smug assurance that no matter how bad things get, the government will always be there to bail them out. Bronson's capable hands stretch laissez-faire capitalism into the realm of the absurd - one enterprising young salesman corners the market on staff breakfasts - but it's never so absurd that you can't see the same mentality at work behind the headlines of the Wall Street Journal every day.
Most chilling is the way in which international politics factor into Atlantic Pacific's corporate priorities. With the military establishment hamstrung by treaties and trade agreements, Geeder and company have become the soldiers on America's front line, invading the Third World under the flag of the almighty dollar. The United Nations and Amnesty International be damned - when you've got money, developing countries are no more than booty to be plundered, exploited, and discarded at the first opportunity.
"Bombardiers" is written for a financially sophisticated audience, but don't worry if you can't understand the details of Atlantic Pacific's outrageous plan to arrange a corporate takeover of the Dominican Republic. The salesmen can't understand it either, and Bronson has fun stringing together a lengthy game of Telephone where the nonsense factor of their sales pitches increases exponentially on each pass.
Bronson, an associate publisher at Mercury House and former First Boston sales recruit, isn't beyond a little barnstorming himself. He's shanghaied the plot, tone, and structure of his book straight from the comic masterpiece on bureaucratic doublethink, Joseph Heller's "Catch-22." "Bombardiers" even has some of "Catch-22's" shortcomings: two-dimensional characters and a lack of subtlety.
Absorbed in the spirit of corporate piracy and still rankling from Heller's own dismal "Catch-22" sequel last year, I couldn't have cared less. Po Bronson's flight of the bombardiers is well worth cheering on.
Dave Edelman has worked as an editor for the Bankcroft Information Group and now is on the staff of the Sagalyn Agency, a literary agent in the Washington area. He has a degree in writing seminars from Johns Hopkins.