“Families are always rising or falling in America,” said Nathaniel Hawthorne. The highest a family can rise, I suppose, is by establishing itself as a baronial dynasty such as the Vanderbilts or Kennedys, achieving a comfortable financial security that lasts through the generations.
An astute observer of contemporary society in his Esquire magazine column, Stephen Marche, the author of The Hunger of the Wolf, has pointed out in an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books that the literature of our Second Gilded Age, as exemplified by Jonathan Franzen and Rachel Kushner, takes its inspiration from 19th-century novelists such as Balzac, for whom themes of property and profit were paramount. Marche’s new book, his fourth, fits easily into the category of this neo-bourgeois novel, dealing trenchantly with precisely these questions of money, family and marriage.
The Hunger of the Wolf traces the rise of an American media dynasty, the Wylies, simultaneously depicting the efforts of Jamie Cabot, a 30-something struggling freelancer who is the son of the caretaker of the Wylies’ cabin in North Lake, Alberta, to survive in New York. Jamie hopes to sell Vanity Fair his spec profile of the dynasty and thereby stay afloat in Manhattan.
Dale Wylie and his sons are not the thuggish type of American tycoon, always ready to cut a roguish corner or two, such as Joe Kennedy or Howard Hughes. Cautious penny pinchers in their amassing of an empire, they are relatively benign. In fact, the Wylie men—Dale, George and Ben—are not really Americans at all, although they originate from a small town in Pennsylvania, since Marche has transparently based them on the Scottish-Canadian Thomson family.
Dale Wylie is a barely fictionalized version of Roy Thomson, easily recognizable from the barber father to the acquisition of small-town radio stations, and the move to the United Kingdom, where Dale purchases that country’s major newspaper, here called The Record instead of The Times.
Like the heroes of Balzac and Stendhal who seek to conquer Paris, Jamie Cabot, a Toronto freelancer who writes about real estate and restaurants, comes to Manhattan to seek his fortune or at the very least become the next Graydon Carter. Once Cabot’s lawyer wife returns to Toronto, and he is downsized from his magazine staff job, he finds himself stranded in a basement apartment in Washington Heights. Unlike Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, the devious Jamie does not rise in life by the straightforward route of marrying the beautiful heiress Poppy Wylie, the addicted daughter of the manor. After all, Poppy is the intimidatingly promiscuous lover of rock stars and Formula One drivers. Instead, he pursues what can only be called the silver medal strategy. After he meets Poppy in the course of researching his magazine profile, he deviously plays matchmaker, introducing the heiress to his bad boy PR exec friend Theo. Jamie then consoles and marries his womanizing buddy’s wealthy but kind and virtuous ex-wife Kate, thus securing for himself a life behind the thick stone walls of the rich.
Marche’s novel, however, is not straight naturalist fiction in the manner of his 19th-century predecessors. Mixing genres, as he has done in previous books, Marche has cleverly added a flourish from the neo-fabulist playbook of Gabriel García Márquez or Salman Rushdie. The male Wylies, you see, metamorphose into werewolves once a month and like nothing better than a satisfying howl at the moon. This inherited lycanthropy symbolizes the Wylies’ unappeasable hunger for more power, more money, what Keynes called the “animal spirits of the entrepreneur.” Marche presents this predatory glamour in toothless fashion, with a minimum of gore. He depicts the Wylies’ werewolf depredations offstage—no unseemly dismemberings to be found here: the Wylies are extremely well-behaved Wolves of Wall Street. Like the Thomsons on whom they are based, they keep out of the running of their media properties in high-minded fashion and refrain from political meddling. Marche has taken up a powerful theme, inherited from a potent tradition. By adding this supernatural element, he dilutes the impact of his tale of sex and money, turning it into one more Fairytale of New York.
Despite Marche’s American ambitions, his temperament is purely Canadian. Perhaps the least attractive Canadian trait is mistaking false modesty for moral superiority. Marche is clearly ambivalent about money and is not immune from the notorious Canadian tall poppy syndrome. Americans know exactly how they feel about money: they like it a lot. At every turn Jamie Cabot displays the envy of a magazine writer who does celebrity profiles but gets only a limited glimpse of the lives of the rich and famous. “A celebrity,” he says, “is a party that is happening in the bigger house across the lake.” A polite boy from Alberta, he bristles at the swagger of a movie star like Colin Farrell.
However, this Canadian ambivalence toward wealth allows Marche to make many acerbic observations about the rich men and women among whom his narrator finds himself. If the mega-rich do not care to understand themselves, Marche, with his eye for status detail, is willing to undertake the task. About rich people and their quixotic causes, he says, “Poppy needed to believe in something larger than herself to survive her narcissism.” He takes note of the “frictionless young men with their puffy-faced arrogance who fawned over anyone with more money than them, then flashed a dead-eyed contempt on anyone with less.”
In Marche’s acutely observed world of the discreet male gold digger, women are always the sexual aggressors; the hungry young man takes care to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He nibbles on salads to show he is taking care of himself, reads to the sugar mama’s children and waits demurely to be kissed. He wonders what to do about his penis in a feminized world.
It would be memorable if in any discussion of the American rich, The Great Gatsby were not invoked. Even before publication such comparisons were being made in relation to The Hunger of the Wolf. But Gatsby made his own fortune, even if it was on the shady side. With its similar theme of marrying into wealth, a more apt comparison to Marche’s story is Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, where the worthy outsider marries the daughter of the mansion and displaces the dissolute heir. The genre as a whole might be titled, How to Marry a Millionairess.
Of the three strands of Marche’s ambitious novel, the least realized is that of the werewolves. Warren Zevon did it better in a three-minute pop song. The rise of the Wylie dynasty is more persuasively depicted, yet it is not entirely satisfying because the dynasty ascends unopposed. Nobody tries to foil them and their success is never in doubt.
Nonetheless, the dark tale of the subtle romantic manoeuvres of Jamie Cabot is nearly worthy of the best chronicler of the American rich, Henry James. Marche’s account of how blue-eyed Albertan “innocent” Jamie Cabot, frictionless magazine journalist and tactful male courtesan, shrewdly manipulates his way into the world of private jets and inherited money is essential for anyone who wishes to comprehend the current era.