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  • Written by Sabin Willett
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  • Written by Sabin Willett
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A Novel

Written by Sabin WillettAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Sabin Willett

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On Sale: September 14, 2004
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-411-1
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Fritz Brubaker and his wife, Linda—an attractive couple in their mid-forties—have it all. He’s a toy-company executive and she’s a million-dollar-a-year lawyer. Their children are in private school; they have a McMansion in a Boston suburb and a cottage on Nantucket. But their comfortable world is suddenly turned upside down when Fritz’s company’s stock tanks and he is arrested for insider trading. Linda’s image-conscious firm suspends her. Their houses get repossessed. The kids go haywire. Watching the Brubaker family’s lives unravel is the best way to see the stuff from which they’re really made.
This clever, very funny novel is a post-millennial snapshot of America that shows what happens to an economy built on greed when its chickens come home to roost. It’s the story of a family gone wrong, and its attempt to reset its course.
The author of two successful thrillers, Sabin Willett delivers in this ambitious new novel the kind of witty social commentary we associate with Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Franzen, and Zadie Smith. But he writes in his own original voice, breaking new ground as he describes a changed world. Present Value is a provocative, wonderfully entertaining ride—an irreverent, clear-eyed view of the way we live now.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

1

A DELIVERY OF PRECIOUS CARGO


HEAT! The heat was steamy and suffocating, a humid pall that anticipated the dawn and left everyone a little sluggish, a little vulnerable. It was so hot that the day itself seemed dazed, as though it had got lost from July somehow, made a wrong turn off the calendar, then wandered fitfully in the ether until it stumbled into September. In the suburbs west of Boston that Monday morning, it was not autumn at all; there was no hint or whisper of New England charm to come, nothing of the crisp anticipation of a new school year. It was just a sizzler—a white-sky mugging. And in the car-pool lane at the Chaney School, it was Cairo at noontime.

“Car-pool lane” was one of the school’s many charming euphemisms, for there wasn’t much pooling evident. The fewer the kids, the bigger the vehicle. The SUVs idled in rank, pumping out pizza-oven blasts of superheated exhaust, inching forward toward the alcove, where each would discharge from seventy-eight cubic feet of cargo space its seven cubic feet of Precious Cargo.

At just after eight a.m., behind the wheel of his wife’s forest-green 2001 Lincoln Navigator, Fritz Brubaker took his place at the back of the line. In front of the Navigator was a shiny black Chevrolet Yukon XL with a 2500 cc Vortex engine, its powerful air conditioner cooling Precious Cargo by means of an asphalt-melting heat transfer from the tailpipe. In front of the Yukon was a white Mercedes SUV; in front of the Mercedes a Suburban, in front of the Suburban a pearl-gray Range Rover, in front of the Range Rover an Audi A6 all-wheel-drive Quattro feeling smugly and environmentally righteous in this brigade of half-tracks, and in front of the Audi a line of seven-foot SUVs broken only once by a minivan that looked as though it were being held hostage.

They didn’t wait impatiently, mind you—they advanced smartly, even eagerly, the moment they could, but not impatiently. No impatience would be expressed as the SUV at the front of the line stopped at the alcove and the driver hopped down from the front seat; none as she (usually but not always, either Mom or the nanny) came around to the passenger side to unbelt the cargo with a cheery wave to the vehicle behind; none as she greeted the welcome teacher (this morning it was Mavis Potemkin, one of the team-teaching second-grade pair); certainly no one would express vehicular urgency as the parent straightened the Patagonia backpack on the child’s shoulders (the backpack must be an approved backpack: while the $79.99 JanSport would do in a pinch, a good parent really ought to spring for the $109 Patagonia number); no one in line would be so gauche as to rev a three-hundred-horsepower engine as the parent checked the water bottle (children must be properly hydrated at all times); and then, perhaps most important of all, as the line of idling SUVs pumped remorseless cubic meters of carbon monoxide into the hot morning air, no impatience would be expressed as the parent escorted the Precious Cargo thirty feet across the gravel and through the doorway of Fielding Hall.

Not that the crushed-stone path between the alcove and Fielding was perilous country. Mishap there was about as likely as, say, a holdup in the Oval Office. Still, this daily station of the parenting cross was vitally important. The car-pool-laners were eager—they wanted to move smartly (but not rudely) and efficiently (but not impatiently) through this process, but no one would rush this event. Because escorting one’s children into Fielding Hall at the Chaney School was a Good Parent Ritual. At the turn of the millennium in tony Wellesley, Massachusetts, just west of the city that liked to call itself the Hub, churchgoing was off, but Good Parent Rituals were the new sacraments. Particularly when other hawkeyed good parents were watching with raptorial intent from their sport utility perches.

Fritz looked at his car phone, thought about calling the office, and thought better of it. He’d be at Playtime—the international toy, video game, and software conglomerate—soon enough. And on the ninth floor of the company’s Burlington headquarters, there would be a different kind of heat. A bad wind was blowing at Playtime: a hot and angry meltemi.

Fritz lowered the automatic window and leaned out of the Navigator, craning his neck to count the cars in front. Waves of heat rushed in. Jesus, it was hot.

“Jesus, it’s hot! Shut the window, will you?”

Thus spake 50 percent of the Precious Cargo. Among the more abrasive habits—and there were many—of Michael Brubaker was the thirteen-year-old’s uncanny knack of sinning openly in precisely the way and at precisely the moment that his father was sinning in private. Only two weeks ago they had been in the Natick Mall, father and son, when Fritz and Michael passed a little hottie with exposed navel and groaningly tight bustier pulled across a diabolical set of grapefruit breasts. At the moment that the words “God, what tits!” were forming in Fritz’s brain, Michael said loudly, “God, what tits!”

Only thirteen! The disrespect of it, the contemptuous disrespect! And the uncanny way that Michael had figured out how to mimic his father’s own failings—to impose on his father the cost of hypocrisy whenever discipline should be asserted.

Fritz knew—the reasons were vague and rather difficult to articulate, but nevertheless he knew—that Michael was too young to be dropping profane epithets around a parent. True, other than for the annual worship-of-children service held at the First Congregational Church of Dover each Christmas Eve (in which children gave piano recitals and then were paraded in as stars, angels, sheep, and wise persons, and tumultuous applause was heard from a large crowd of adoring parental magi, right in the sanctuary), neither he nor Linda had been to services in—how long had it been? So objecting to an infraction of the Third Commandment struck Fritz as a little bit hypocritical. Still, it left him feeling vaguely uncomfortable.

He couldn’t see the alcove yet, even leaning out the window. Twelve cars? Fifteen? Of which maybe eleven were as massive as Linda’s Lincoln Navigator LX, with its leather seats and side-impact air bags (not that anything would dare broadside this mountain of metal), its surround-sound Blaupunkt audio, and the drop-down DVD screen. On the latter Michael even now was immersed in Death Vault, his latest video game. Fritz could hear stereophonic punches and kicks, stunning groans and grunts, and a glup-glup-glupping that he took to be the sound of arterial blood. When Michael severed a head or a limb, which he did rather frequently, DVD blood spurted from open wounds with anatomical verisimilitude. Michael liked this feature.

“Da-ad, he’s been playing that stupid game since we left home. Can’t he turn it off?”

This from the balance of the Precious Cargo, Fritz’s sixth-grade daughter, Kristin.

“Shut up, queer,” said Michael.

“Da-ad!”

“Michael!” Fritz barked, but to what syntactic end was uncertain. Michael in the general vocative. Michael in the undeclined emphatic. Michael in the will-you-stop-being-a-jerk-for-ten-more-minutes.

The mission statement of the Chaney School avowed a commitment to nonviolence, tolerance, and economic justice and affirmed the value of every human being, regardless of race, creed, religion, belief, national origin, gender, sexual preference, or physical, mental, or emotional disability. Michael, an eighth-grader, had been a student there since preschool.

The mission statement hung in a glass frame in the Welcome Center just inside Fielding Hall. It was also printed in the school brochure. Prospective parents lauded the school’s commitment to these important values. They thought this an excellent environment for students of tender years. For the parents of a five-year-old, nonviolence and tolerance often appeared to be exotic goals. Only later would these parents’ educational goals expand to things like chemistry and getting into Andover.

The parents also liked that the Chaney School had been around for a long time. In fund-raisers and at alumni functions, the headmistress, Harriet Tichenor, a stout and jolly lady, always mentioned that the school had a proud heritage. It had been established in 1912. This would bring nods of appreciation. Almost ninety years ago! Founded back when Wellesley was a simple country town! People liked that.

Chaney did have a proud heritage, but it avoided boastful displays. On the contrary, Chaney observed a remarkable and commendable discretion, even reticence, as to the details of the whole heritage thing, mentioning that the school had indeed been founded in 1912 by Louise S. Chaney, a spinster educator, and leaving it at that. Miss Chaney, as she was known, had bought the old Fielding Mansion overlooking the Charles River that year, and four years later graduated the first class of sixteen students. But her father, Lounsford Chaney III, had more to do with the real establishment of the place. It was from his will that Miss Chaney had inherited a special bequest of $2 million. Lounsford had made these millions, and many more besides, as chairman of the Trans-Atlantic Mineral Corporation, which profited handsomely in the years before World War I by the systematic rapine of the mineral wealth of Liberia. Through his shrewd backing of local warlords, Lounsford achieved substantial savings in labor costs (the company subcontracted the actual mining to the warlords, who in turn used slaves). This effective management tool gave the company a competitive advantage, which it exploited to loot the country of much of its aluminum, copper, lead, and gold. After the war, Trans-Atlantic Mineral closed the mines, thanked the slave drivers for their good work, and left behind a wasteland pocked with slag heaps and leaching pools of chromium and arsenic. But by that time Lounsford had a fortune in excess of $14 million.

Although the school featured an African Appreciation Week and welcomed players of African drums and carvers of African masks, and although two months of the fifth-grade curriculum were devoted to the deplorable legacy of apartheid in southern Africa, the swashbuckling African business career of Chaney père was not a focus of study.

It was going to be a while before Fritz got to the alcove. Only there might he safely discharge his own Precious Cargo from the Navigator’s restraint harnesses, check the backpacks and water bottles, wave jauntily and cheerily to the other good parents, and leave. Nothing—well, nothing except Linda—was less forgiving than the car-pool lane. There were no shortcuts. It would have been unthinkable simply to evacuate the Precious Cargo before reaching the alcove. This would be to commit poor parenting, and at the Chaney School, poor parenting was scandalous. (A child might be hit by an SUV, though none of them seemed to be moving. Still, it might happen.) So Fritz idled, crept forward, idled, and pumped hydrocarbons into the atmosphere.

This stifling Monday morning had already been more than a match for Fritz. It gave him renewed appreciation for his wife. Linda could rise at four-thirty, run four miles on her contact-free gyrotreader, spend a half hour in the bathroom, rouse the kids, rouse the nanny, rouse Fritz, preside over the choices of clothing and healthful cereal, inspect the backpacks, oversee the correct brushing and flossing of teeth, find the shoes, and bellow “Move out!” right on schedule. Linda LeBrecque was the George S. Patton of morning.

But Linda hadn’t been around for this particular reveille, and neither was her usual NCO. The new nanny had vanished almost the moment she appeared—within forty-eight hours of her arrival last week, in fact. Poor Nina had been sent back to Ecuador, Linda commenting vaguely that “it just wasn’t going to work out.” Fritz found his wife’s insight impressive, if somewhat opaque, for Nina had barely emerged from the taxi and hadn’t done any child care or housework yet. The only data available as of the time Nina was cashiered was that she had a tidy little figure and a certain way of walking that Fritz kind of noticed. From the moment he was able to appreciate that salient point, Fritz suspected that poor Nina was toast.

So now they were nanny-free. To top it, on Sunday afternoon Linda had gone off to San Francisco to some kind of board meeting, leaving Fritz to do morning himself.

Which began, after the toss-and-turn night, with Fritz sleeping through the alarm. Finding Kristin’s J. Crew flip-flops had been a crisis (she used to wear sneakers, he thought. Why all this new tension about finding the right flip-flops? And what was with forty-eight-dollar flip-flops?), and then nobody could find Michael’s backpack, and then Kristin started wigging out about sunscreen, of all things (at the Chaney School, children must be equipped with sunscreen, without which it would be unsafe to play at recess). So Fritz, who rarely lost patience, and who almost never worried about anything, was in a uniquely uncomfortable state that morning of September 10, 2001. You could almost say he was getting nervous.

The car phone chirruped.

“Fritz, where are you?” It was Luce, Fritz’s administrative assistant.

“Hey, Luce. I’m in car pool.”

“What?”

“Car pool. Dropping the kids off. You know.”


From the Hardcover edition.
Sabin Willett|Author Q&A

About Sabin Willett

Sabin Willett - Present Value
Sabin Willett is a partner with the Boston law firm Bingham Dana. The Betrayal is his second novel. He graduated from Harvard and Harvard Law School and lives outside Boston.

About the Reader
Judith Ivey has earned Tony Awards for her work in Hurlyburly and Steaming. Her film credits include Devil's Advocate, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Mystery, Alaska.

Author Q&A

A Talk with Sabin Willett


Your first two novels were thrillers.  Why the leap to social satire?
Writing this book was, for me, like riding my sister-in-law’s horse. I have been trying to do that lately, and I discovered that the enterprise goes very well when I decide to go wherever and whenever Joker wants to go, but leads to some painful dismounts when I try to mess with Joker’s agenda.
I wrote the first thriller because I thought it would be easiest for a nobody to publish a thriller.  I wrote the second thriller because the first book was a thriller.  I even wrote a third thriller (the God’s honest truth was that this was in 2000 or so and the plot was about the secret son of a bin Ladinesque figure who is discovered at a US school…), or part of a third thriller, but by this time it was really starting to feel like the horse didn't want to go where I was urging it.  
So I thought I might be able to stay in the saddle if I just let the horse go where it wanted to go.  Which was to Present Value.  I suppose I have an ironic sensibility, and I think a lot, as a middle aged guy, about where things have come from and where they’re headed, and I believe I have a knack for humor in writing (although my kids will testify I have no skill at all orally.  Worst joke teller in America).
The horse was dying to go this way, and I feel more like a rider now.   

Your protagonists, Fritz and Linda Brubaker, are portrayed as an uber-power couple.  Do people really live like this?  Or did you exaggerate for comic effect? 
Heck if I know how those people live!  Fritz, though, is a little outside that.  His wife has uberpower; he’s along for the ride, at first.
Actually I do know something about how those people live I guess, as I live in a town not wholly unlike Dover, and see in big-firm urban law practice the lifestyle of the rich and powerful.  Poor Linda, I exaggerated the hell out of her, of course, but there are both women and men — particularly lawyers — for whom the combination of money hunger, nerves, and instant communications goads into this perpetual state of anxiety.  Also, the “I-must-not-be-subject-to-criticism” spirit definitely exists, and makes some people crazy.

What does it mean to be a perfect family?  And what is sacrificed in maintaining this illusion?  
Well, this is an interesting one!  I don't know, but I do think there are a lot of people in my generation who are spending too damn much time in their children’s lives.  You go to a sixth grade dance in Dover, you’ll see as many parents as sixth graders.  Ditto a little league game or a hockey practice.  And I do think the middle aged moneyed class spends a lot of time trying to show off its exquisitely sensitive parenting.
But there is no illusion, and I would say no sacrifice, in a perfect family.  Perfection in a family is love, and if you have that, you don't need to pretend to have anything else.  But all the monetary, cultural, and social expectations get in the way of that.  Fritz and Linda work to get there, each in his own way, and the omens look better at the end. 

Technology, video games, cell phones, blackberries, SUVs-in other words, all the trappings of modern life-keep the Brubakers from ever really communicating or interacting in a meaningful way.  Do these technologies really keep us apart? 
I certainly think so, but I’m a Luddite.  The problem with instant communication is that it is instant, and constant.  People don't have time to think.  And, they're always distracted.  Nobody under 20 ever fully concentrates on anything.  Under 30 for that matter.  Suppose I send an email to five associates that we need to meet in the Jones case next week.  The young ones will email me back within fifteen seconds.  Leaving me to think: Why?  Were they poised for this message, the moment it arrived?  If they were thinking about something important, how could they have time for this trivial email?  Answer: everybody's distracted.  Multitasking.  You never get more than about 20 percent of anybody’s head. 
And that applies at home, too, I fear. Everyone should try an experiment, at least once a year, best done on a summer night.  Rules:  1. Everyone stays home.  2.  No phones, no electricity except for the fridge.  It's remarkable what happens.  And you may feel like that game of scrabble or of charades or that conversation was among the best you’ve all had a in quite a while.
There’s an old lawyer in my firm named Fran.  You see him in the library with a book, usually an old book, and a pencil, and a pad of paper. Thinking.  Making a few notes.  He thinks a blackberry is something you eat in August.  You sent him an email today and you get back a message in two months.
But in a courtroom, he's the best communicator I know.

The collapse of big business is delightfully skewered by the bankruptcy of Playtime in the novel.  How realistic is your portrayal of bankruptcy and liquidation as presented in PRESENT VALUE?  It seemed quite absurd to me. 
It is a little stretched, I admit.  The ingredients are real: the emphasis on professional fees, the jitters over the first day hearings, the carve outs, the efforts of management to protect themselves, the key employee retention plans, the tension over the confirmation process, that's all real.  I stretched some of the characterization of people for laughs. 

In the novel, you use skiing--in particular skiing down a particularly steep trail-and later sailing as metaphors for Fritz Brubaker's life.  Why those metaphors? 
Not really sailing, but yes definitely to one skiing metaphor.  In fact the manuscript was named “Skiing Paradise” before the publishers stepped in.  Skiing Paradise was my original metaphor for Fritz's predicament.  There really is a ski area on which Stark is modeled, and there is a real trail called Paradise, and it is nasty.  The notion was that in midlife we find ourselves committed to the steeps of job, marriage, kids’ adolescence, and there is no way out, and it is scary, and it might actually kill you.  But if you hang in there, it ends.  It just ends.  But you have to get to the bottom to figure that out. 
Not very deep, I guess, but I thought it worked.

By the end of PRESENT VALUE, both Fritz and Linda have made tremendous sacrifices for their children.  Is this something they would have done before their worlds got stripped away?  Or is it a product of the journey each has undertaken? 
I think this a very insightful question.  Each of them would have thought that s/he would make any sacrifice for them before, but before, each would have rationalized “sacrifice,” and would have concluded that maintenance of the status quo was in the kids’ best interest.   I think Fritz and Linda each needed to face risk and predicament to better understand what should be done for the kids.  We need to be shaken from complacency to understand what children need, I think.

Even while Fritz and Linda were making mistakes, I found myself rooting for them to make the right choices and succeed.  Why is that, especially since they are not particularly sympathetic at first glance? 
Well, I always liked Fritz.  I was just a little frustrated with him. I suppose when you figure out the choice he’s made, one gains admiration for him.  
I’m glad you asked the question about Linda.  I think it means I succeeded.  She started out as a mere cliché and source of humor, but that didn't fully answer. So I worked to give her a little more depth, to explain how she got to be so obsessive; how the culture fed into a naturally obsessive nature, and how the predicament of having to accomplish all the external “successes” as a woman compounded the stress. I wanted the reader to root for her, just a little, by the end.

 


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

Present Value is a really good story…and much more. It’s a trove of useful information about the law, the economy, and Wall Street, with intriguing insights into some of the flimsy threads of today’s culture and the sturdier values that can redeem it. Willett’s intelligence, sense of humor and craftsmanship are even more impressive.” -Mario Cuomo

“Out of nowhere, this novel grabbed me by the throat and wouldn't let go until I finished. It takes you into boardrooms and bedrooms, it explores the post-9/11 psyche, the culture of business, pokes below the surface of a "perfect" marriage, and provides a comic description of the noisome Blackberry culture that leaves us staring at the tops of people's heads. Sabin Willett has the eye of a fine satirist, and the fluid writing style of a Tom Wolfe.” -Ken Auletta

“If you love to hate lawyers, psychotherapists, political correctness, suburban oppressiveness, Blackberrys, CEOs, and/or CFOs; if you have a taste for tales of corporate intrigue told from the inside out; or if you enjoy dead-on 21st century comedies of manners, then Present Value is your book. “- Kurt Andersen, author of Turn of the Century


From the Hardcover edition.

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