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Book Review

Tale Twists Through 2 Cities and 2 Eras

September 26, 2002|DANIEL CARIAGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EXTRAVAGANCE

By Gary Krist

Broadway Books

288 pages, $24

Superlatively and consistently engrossing, Gary Krist's new novel, "Extravagance," tracks the first act of the epic financial career of William Tobias Merrick.

Right out of Indiana, 20-year-old Merrick sweeps into New York City to seek his fortune; he stumbles regularly, errs often and lucks into a heady mix of big-city denizens and fellow aspirants, some of whom befriend him.

Krist tells this story on two levels, one occurring today, the other taking place 300 years ago in a London awash in high-energy financial dealings not unlike those of today's New York. The several characters are the same but the technologies and neighborhoods necessarily different. It is a masterfully realized conceit, and never confusing to the reader, although the back-and-forth grows more frequent as the tale progresses.

In both eras, Merrick's new friends, and his successful uncle and sponsor, Gilbert Hawking, propel the activity. Things move fast; though some details may surprise, they do not halt the action.

Starting with little cash but savvy instincts and a credible amount of luck, the insatiable Merrick finds himself on both the buying and selling ends of a financial scheme, greedily parlaying his connections with his uncle and Ted Witherspoon, the financial genius who has helped him score a series of sizable monetary coups. The climax comes when--in the very moment a tragedy befalls him--he is caught between loyalties to these two mentors as his double-dealing is exposed.

Will's genuine problem, however, is that he lacks the maturity to understand clearly the implications of his moral choices. He is smart but naive. And he is reminded of this regularly, almost humiliatingly, by the bright woman he is courting, Eliza Fletcher. She is the privileged sister of a technological sleight-of-hand artist whose invention--in both time zones--precipitates Will's crisis of conscience at the climax.

Getting to that point is a romp through the author's keen observations of our turn-of-this-century urban world. He prods his subjects with unpretentious good humor.

For instance, the moment Merrick begins to feel his oats, Krist describes: " ... An impeccable dove-gray Hickey-Freeman suit, along with an off-white linen shirt and a Hermes silk tie, had been set out on my bedspread. I dressed quickly and was pleased to find the suit an almost perfect fit. Looking at myself in the full-length mirror was something of a revelation. The figure in the glass was unmistakably a New Yorker, and a New Yorker of some consequence. I put my hand to my ear, cell-phonically, and said, 'Four thousand shares of Cisco, at the market. And do it now!' "

Later, meeting Eliza at a new restaurant, Merrick observes: "The dining room was all red, emphatically red--crimson walls, vermilion carpeting, cerise paper wall sconces, tomato-red upholstered chairs--and its clashiness was both clearly intentional and blatantly aggressive. A stiletto-thin black woman (slinky scarlet dress slit to her upper thighs) led us to our table and produced two palm-sized electronic devices on which the evening's menu was displayed ... "

Aphorism is one of Krist's talents, but not the grandstanding kind. Here, he sneaks one in while extolling the profits to be made by attending the opera:

" 'Each? You spent $600 to see this opera?'

" 'Worth every penny. And besides, it's tax deductible. Did you see that bar as we came in? I made one of my best business connections there two years ago, while waiting for a glass of champagne. It was Tosca, as I recall. Puccini makes people very susceptible to persuasion.' "

The author also describes his characters pointedly: "Sir Reginald--in London for a short time, up from the family seat in Devonshire--sipped his chocolate disdainfully. He sat beside his wife, Lady Dorothea, a substantial female, who was as silent as her husband was garrulous, her face as grey as his was pink. Sitting there, they called to mind nothing so much as two great fat prawns, only one of which had been cooked."

"Extravagance" is substantial and a fun, fast read. Now, like Krist's insatiable character Merrick, we are left wanting more.

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