Floating in the boom-time bubble

2010-06-16 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

The Hopeless Life of Charlie Summers

Paul Torday

Weidenfield and Nicolson

THE recent global financial meltdown provides the backdrop for this highly amusing novel by the author of the critically acclaimed Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

Hector Chetwode-Talbot (Eck to his friends) is a professional officer serving in the British Army who, after an unfortunate friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan, feels obliged to resign his commission. Like many a soldier before him he finds himself ill-suited to life back in civvy street. Other than soldiering he has no special skills or training; unemployed and seemingly unemployable, he wonders what on earth he is going to do with the rest of his life.

In the eyes of Bilbo Mountwilliam, his former school friend and now a highly successful hedge-fund operator, Eck, however, does have one extremely useful asset — an easy-going and like­able personality and, more importantly, a wide circle of wealthy and aristocratic friends who regard him as completely trustworthy.

Over a lunch in London Bilbo offers Eck a job as a “greeter” — a person employed to wine and dine rich and influential potential clients and once he has hooked them in, to hand them over to the company’s brokers who will advise them on how to invest their money. At first the job goes swimmingly. Eck finds himself earning more money than he has ever done before and is able to buy a flat and a flash car.

Then the whole elaborate financial edifice begins to crumble and Eck finds himself in over his head.

His troubles do not end there. While holidaying in France with his wealthy landowner friend, Henry ­Newark, Eck has a chance encounter with Charlie Summers, a small-time con-man operating at the other end of the social scale, whose latest get-rich-quick scheme is to import “Japanese” dog food (which he manufactures himself) into the United Kingdom. Little does Eck realise it but their lives are soon to become irretrievable intertwined.

Using a zigzagging narrative to chart the two men’s fortunes, Ellis gives his reader a wise, funny and at times poignant look into life both ­inside and outside the financial ­bubble. Brightly written and hugely entertaining, it provides a case history of how money-madness and status-anxiety caused a lot of people to try to overlook some of the basic laws of economics.

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