The Way We Live Now?

Hanover Place

by Michael M. Thomas
Warner Books, 479 pp., $19.95

A Tenured Professor

by John Kenneth Galbraith
Houghton Mifflin, 197 pp., $19.95

Henry James used to bemoan the fact that he lacked the technical knowledge of American business with which to fill in the commercial careers of such of his characters as Christopher Newman in The American or Adam Verver in The Golden Bowl. But he needn’t have worried. We sufficiently sense the lifetime obsession of that old goldbug, Abel Gaw, of The Ivory Tower in James’s description of his answer to his daughter’s inquiry if he is tired:

He turned to her his small neat finely-wrinkled face, of an extreme yellowish pallor and which somehow suggested at this end of time an empty glass that had yet held for years so much strong wine that a faint golden tinge still lingered from it. “I can’t get any more tired than I am already.”

Michael M. Thomas has not suffered from James’s problem. He knows almost too much about finance and financiers, too much, that is, for a novelist. And he not only knows the wheelings and dealings of investment bankers; he knows their families, their social lives, their houses and art collections, their boats and sports and vacation spots, their vices and occasional virtues. Not since Sinclair Lewis has an American novelist been able so authentically to fill in the highly complicated and variegated background of his characters.

This talent at times carries him right out of Hanover Place. In the manner of Disraeli in Sybil, he occasionally lectures his reader, dropping the curtain on the vivid antagonisms of his entertainingly articulate and quarrelsome characters to give a discourse on the horrors of corporate takeovers and where the needed funds may be found:

The disparate enterprises for which Lester Vivian worked as de facto global coordinator of finance had recently produced a new product…. It sold for cash, had low manufacturing costs—which offset a somewhat antiquated distribution system—and required zero investment in marketing and advertising. The regulation to which it was notionally subject was hopelessly inefficient. Its demand demographics seemed virtually perfect…. It had been originally offered under a number of different regional names, but the one that seemed to be emerging as the clear consumer preference was “crack.”

The extreme topicality of Hanover Place may cost it some readers a decade hence, but not in 1990 when Thomas is dealing with the essentials of our business structure. His novel is unabashedly one with a moral: that if we allow the greedy game of the corporate takeover to follow its rampant course, not only our economy but what national morality we have will collapse. Perhaps these things have already happened; perhaps the foundations have been fatally sapped. On the other hand, Thomas’s readers might note that public indignation may have already been aroused by the recent indictments for securities fraud and the bankruptcy of some of the firms promoting the takeovers. Perhaps his novel would have been more effective had it been published two years ago.

His chronicle covers the story, from 1924 …

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