Private Lives Beneath Wall Street Glitz Are Revealed in a New Book

(Bloomberg Markets) — When Daniel Lefferts was an MFA student working on an early draft of his novel, Ways and Means, he’d ride the subway downtown to observe a specific cohort of New Yorkers. “I would just walk around the Financial District and watch these men stream out of buildings and race to Sweetgreen, wearing their white button-­downs and their Patagonia vests,” Lefferts tells me over lunch in a Hudson, New York, cafe. “I found it beautiful and­ mysterious—like I was on a safari.”

Around the same time, Lefferts dated some men who work on Wall Street. As he’d write in an essay for the Paris Review, the lines between romance and fiction could occasionally blur, since his book takes place in the striving, charged environment of New York’s finance industry. One of the story’s pivotal moments unfolds on the repo desk of JPMorgan Chase & Co.—hardly an overrepresented setting in American arts and letters.

Lefferts’ real-life suitors worked at hedge funds and private equity firms. They wore the same Barbour jackets; they held the same Wharton degrees. The variations seemed as minor as the differences between cells B5 and C5 on an empty Excel spreadsheet, or unit 5B and 5C in a luxury condo building.

Ways and Means, published in February, reaches beyond the swaggering-financier stereotype. It’s stocked with characters who are navigating New York and its attendant money concerns. The book centers on Alistair, an undergraduate at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He’s moved from his hometown of Binghamton, New York, to forge a career in investment banking but becomes wildly derailed after his internship at JPMorgan sours.

He has a romantic entanglement with a slightly older and significantly more moneyed pair of men. They’re just emerging from the cocoon of their eight-year monogamous relationship by opening up to a third person, Alistair. The affair offers a diversion, then something darker, as Alistair casts around for a way to earn money to support his single mother and pay back his mounting student loans. He winds up running afoul of a shadowy fracking billionaire who pulls Alistair into his orbit.

Ways and Means reflects how those with the greatest wealth can maneuver with little accountability and what that means for everyone else. It’s set in the months before Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, powered in part by the electorate’s class divisions. “People put faith in these billionaires to grow the economy, advance innovation, preserve institutions,” Lefferts writes in one section, but they were, “for all their benevolence, ultimately unanswerable to the people, mysterious in their intentions, inscrutable.”

Lefferts, 35, carefully renders each character’s relationship with money. For wealthier characters, it’s a mere abstraction. Mark, one half of the couple courting Alistair, survives on a trust fund from his dad, who made a fortune building a mobile-home company. A hungry private equity firm wants to buy it and then wring every penny from its vulnerable trailer park residents. To round out those details, which yield some of the novel’s richest material, Lefferts interviewed a friend who harbored mixed feelings about a similar family business.

One degree removed from that kind of reality, Mark rarely pauses to consider what he’s spending on rent, takeout and living expenses for himself and his long-term partner, Elijah. Both Mark and Elijah epitomize a type recognizable to any New Yorker—call it the well-fed artist—one whose living costs are paid for by somebody else, so they can “focus” on writing or painting without producing much of anything. For Alistair, there’s no escape from the price tags affixed to every moment. His first night out at NYU, he orders a vodka soda at a straight bar: $22.

Like Alistair, Lefferts grew up in Binghamton, which is just three hours north of Manhattan but distant from the borough in almost every other way. He remembers his own culture shock coming to New York, realizing that the Binghamton families with lake houses didn’t seem so wildly prosperous anymore.

The idea for Alistair’s character came to Lefferts when he was studying English at NYU. He says he always liked stories about shady corporations and men on the make. He loves the movies Michael Clayton and Margin Call. Still, he found much of contemporary literature on finance unsatisfying, with a few notable exceptions, such as Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Hernan Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Trust. One other novelist who writes with zest about the hedge fund subculture, Gary Shteyngart, blurbed his book.

To Lefferts, many of the best novelistic treatments of money date to the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, from writers more comfortable invoking specifics about class division. Entire plots turn on the precise sum of an inheritance, a mismanaged investment or the deed to a property. As an undergraduate he lapped up the work of Edith Wharton and Jane Austen.

Lefferts, who briefly considered, then rejected, the idea of attending Stern himself, realized he needed to know more about life in banking and investing to develop the world Alistair enters and eventually abandons for a dodgier enterprise.

He assigned himself some homework. He audited undergraduate economics courses at Columbia University and began reading the Economist every week, flipping straight to the articles on quantitative easing and index funds. “It was so boring that it was avant-garde,” he says.

Our check arrives. Lefferts has one more stop: his place up the street. “I have something on the wall I think you’ll like,” he says.

In Lefferts’ apartment, above his desk, hangs the keyboard of a Bloomberg Terminal. It’s framed in white, encased in glass, oriented vertically, severed from its original context by a frayed bit of wire. (A meta disclaimer: Bloomberg LP is the parent company of Bloomberg News.)

Just two hours south in Midtown Manhattan, this would be a routine, ubiquitous bit of machinery, installed on rows and rows of desks on any trading floor—but reconsidered, here, it’s a work of art.

Massa covers wealth from New York.

To contact the author of this story:
Annie Massa in New York at [email protected]