As Nathaniel Rich’s second novel, “Odds Against Tomorrow,” opens, it’s a few years from now. U.S. companies are still rattled from an earthquake that destroyed Seattle and forced many to pay record settlements to victims.
Rich’s quant hero, Mitchell Zukor, is the right man at the right time. A young math whiz fixated on catastrophe, he joins a firm called FutureWorld to pitch corporate clients on a way to limit their liability from any disaster. Then his Jeremiads are borne out in a superstorm that floods Manhattan.
Whether the odds or gods favor the appearance of a work of fiction centered on a New York-area superstorm so soon after Sandy remains to be seen. Fortunately, “Odds Against Tomorrow” is an exceptional work, often humorous -- if darkly so -- whose merits would stand even without the uncanny coincidence.
The new book follows Rich’s widely praised 2008 debut, “The Mayor’s Tongue,” a modernist fable with two distinct narratives and an inventive exuberance that could charm or mystify.
His latest presents the story of Midwesterner Mitchell, who moves to New York after college to work first in a financial firm’s Department of Equities, Assets and Derivatives (note the acronym).
After idly answering an online ad, Mitchell joins FutureWorld. Its cutely named founder, Alec Charnoble, recognizes his skill as a contemporary Cassandra attuned by psyche and study to the history and scientific probability of disaster. Working with a young go-getter Wharton grad named Jane, Mitchell stokes companies’ post-Seattle fears with a litany of biological, geological and meteorological events.
Money starts rolling in. Mitchell moves to a prime flat in the financial district. He buys a piece of art called “Psycho Canoe,” which is a garishly painted, full-size functioning boat. It’s handy when Superstorm Tammy pummels New York City and converts Manhattan’s avenues into canals.
Along with Jane, Mitchell paddles the length of Manhattan seeking help or dry land. Their journey combines idyllic moments and horrors. Their refuge in a trailer camp turns perilous when Mitchell is lionized and then blamed as the flood’s prophet.
Rich gets in good comic jabs throughout the first third of the novel at the world of finance, its ambitious Whartonites, its runic argot -- such as “the generalized autoregressive conditional heteroskedasticity model.”
The levity ebbs as the waters rise, leaving the balance of the novel starker -- a shift consistent with that from threat to fact. The nerd-turned-quant mans up for a while in the canoe (Tarzan save Jane!), yet remains ever an awkward fellow driven by a knack for numbers and neurosis.
Mitchell’s encyclopedic knowledge and exploitation of disaster allows Rich to question the sanity or motives of those who live in fear of Armageddon, remain in denial of any threat or profit from both without seeking change.
The book’s strong message and generally undeveloped characters make it feel a bit like a morality play, with Mitchell an oddly well-drawn Everyman amid a few familiar types. It’s no less entertaining for all that but maybe a heart and soul shy of a novel.
The other side to “Odds Against Tomorrow” concerns the dim prospects for escape beforehand or refuge and recovery afterward. The last line seems clear as a cloudless sky: “‘We don’t have a lot of time.’”
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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