“Man, in the indifference of his ignorance, is sustained by what is greedy, insatiable, disgusting, pitiless, and murderous—as if he were hanging in dreams on the back of a tiger.”—Friedrich Nietzsche
As Nassim Nicholas Taleb rightly observes in The Bed of Procrustes (2016), “being rich and becoming rich are not mathematically, personally, socially, and ethically the same thing.” The Hunger of the Wolf is to some extent a meditation upon this timeless truth. It’s a novel about the difference between being and becoming extremely rich—a novel about the virtues that so often define those who create great wealth, and the vices that so often define those who inherit it.
Like Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901), this is an inter-generational novel about a fabulously wealthy family: the Wylies. Their story is told by a New York City based writer named Jamie Cabot, a delightfully unreliable narrator who’s haunted by small-town insecurities and, despite his best efforts to conceal it, obsessed with celebrity: “Nothing is stranger to me than the idea that people I know, even casually, matter. I was raised to irrelevance the way Catholics are raised to the Church. . . . Nothing seems to be able to cure me of the belief that life is happening elsewhere. . . . A celebrity is a party that is happening in the bigger house across the lake, the one you can’t quite see from where you’re living, and in the evening music and laughter thrill over the water, but the next morning there is silence, a still and crumpled silence that is somehow more intoxicating than the music or the laughter.”
Things aren’t going particularly well for Jamie: his marriage is over, his career’s in the toilet, he’s living off credit cards, and he may soon have to admit defeat and leave The City with his tail between his legs: “The greatest gift of New York is that it requires no justification to live there. It’s New York. But slowly I was drifting into that shadowy category of New Yorkers who live in the city because living in New York is something and they have nothing else.” Selling the Wylie exposé to Vanity Fair is the one thing that could turn everything around. It’s his Hail Mary. And it’s likely to succeed. Because Jamie has uncovered something huge: the Wylie men have a secret, something which may have contributed mightily to their success. I won’t spoil it for you (because it’s really cool). Suffice it to say that they’re not entirely human.
If Dale Wylie’s rags to riches story is an illustration of anything, it’s that 80% of success is showing up and getting lucky: “Dale paid one dollar for the radio licence . . . . That single dollar was the outlay for the entire Wylie family fortune, the seed of billions.” It’s the Horatio Alger myth retold as an absurdist farce. Even so, unlike his grandchildren, Dale lives in a world that makes sense. His media empire grows because he never loses sight of the bottom line: “Dale didn’t bother his editors about anything other than money. The political positions of his papers were irrelevant. If he bought a paper with a strong left-wing sensibility, it kept that sensibility. He never bothered his editors with calls to support one or another of his friends in a local political battle; he had no political friends. Even later, when he controlled some of the most influential press outlets in the world, he never imposed his own view. Other proprietors used newspapers as playthings of their opinions. Dale used them to make money.”
Dale’s son, George Wylie, is just as single-minded and tenacious as his father. But he uses his preternatural powers to find love not money. In The Usual Suspects (1995), Roger “Verbal” Kint tells his interrogators about the infamous incident that secured the reputation of notorious criminal mastermind Keyser Söze: “The Hungarians knew Söze was tough, not to be trifled with, so they let him know they meant business. They tell him they want his territory, all his business. Söze looks over the faces of his family. Then he showed those men of will what will really was.” George Wylie, the novel’s most memorable character, is basically a nonviolent Keyser Söze.
Like Söze, George is tested by his enemies (a bunch of private-school brats led by a sadistic bully); and like Söze, he shows them what an iron will looks like, what it’s capable of: “George had been told to stand outside in his underwear in the rain. Therefore he stood outside in his underwear in the rain. Lee found him before the curfew bell, by which time George had been enduring the cold for nearly six hours. ‘They’re asleep now, George,’ Lee whispered. ‘They’re all asleep. I think you can come back now.’ George straightened. ‘They haven’t let me go yet.’ ‘I don’t think anybody wanted you to stay out all night.’ ‘No. Maybe not.’ ‘So why don’t you come in?’ A thick smile, a mild smile, cracked open. The next morning, the Hamilton masters on their way to classes discovered George standing outside in his underwear in the rain, in a state well beyond the point of embarrassment to the school and encroaching on territory dangerous to their individual careers. Inquiries were made. Discussions were held. Letters were written. Suspension? Required. Even if his father was the attorney general of Connecticut. . . . After his stand in the cold, the other boys at Hamilton College imbued him with a kind of fearful exceptionalism. . . . He was so obviously capable of things they were not.”
Just as the shrink said he could, George Wylie eventually finds love: with Lavinia Thibodeau, an avant-garde musician who lives, for a spell, in my Montreal neighborhood, Plateau Mont-Royal. Like George, Lavinia has an iron will and an extraordinary capacity for patience. This is made manifest in one of her phenomenal piano performances: “You could say that George Wylie fell in love, but absolute recognition would be a more precise phrase, abyss calling to abyss. The birds flew and cooed, paused on the hoops, and whenever they landed on the piano itself, Lavinia stopped playing until they fluttered off, which once took seven awkward minutes. Lavinia’s concentration remained pure . . . . From that moment George followed Lavinia Thibodeau.”
George’s children, Ben and Poppy, lack the virtues and vices that made their parents and grandparents so interesting. They’re decadent denizens of the Second Gilded Age, a nihilistic world that’s eerily reminiscent of the Dead God World described by Nietzsche’s madman: “Nobody knew where, exactly, they had floated to. Nobody could name that inequitable Utopia, the Shangri-la of the oligarchs where all things are possible with money, leaving the rest of us in the quotidian ruins of our squalid little lives to dream inchoately of their beautiful omnipotence.”
In this upside-down 1% world of private jets, trust funds, and gold-plated rehab centers, bored billionaires judge each other mercilessly: “Class warfare is more acute between the rich and the megarich than between the rich and the poor. Moneyed people cannot stand the eccentricities of those with more than them and the richer find the slightly less rich intolerably money-grubbing. There is a world of difference between being born on third, thinking you’ve hit a stand-up triple, and being born on home plate.” Jamie interviews Poppy Wylie for his Vanity Fair piece. She’s undeniably hot but predictably vapid, aimless, and boring. Alas, he muses: “Every billionaire is a distinct experiment in what happens when everything is permitted.”
—John Faithful Hamer