FICTION: In his engrossing second novel, Hernan Diaz gives us four versions of the life of an early capitalist.
"Trust" by Hernan Diaz; Riverhead Books (416 pages, $28)
Those unfamiliar with Hernan Diaz's remarkable debut have that novel, "In the Distance," to look forward to. Published in 2017 by Minneapolis' Coffee House Press, his western adventure slyly critiques cherished myths about westward expansion in the mid-19th century. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Diaz's ingenious new fiction, told in four overlapping parts, challenges conventional story lines of another favorite American theme: capitalism and the accumulation of vast wealth.
The one-percenter here is Benjamin Rask, hero of the popular 1938 novel "Bonds" by Harold Vanner that comprises Part 1 of "Trust." In the go-go 1920s, Rask, who is among the country's richest men, was no lumber or railroad baron but rather a reclusive math savant adept at market manipulations that made his fortune grow exponentially.
Rask "became fascinated by the contortions of money — how it could be made to bend back on itself to be force-fed its own body. The isolated, self-sufficient nature of speculation spoke to his character and was a source of wonder and an end in itself."
Rask, modeled on millionaire financier Andrew Bevel (who seeks to tell his own story in Part 2) is less a hissing serpent than a sanctimonious, entitled, free-market booster who inherits from his wealthy father and grandfather the solidly Republican belief "that self-interest, if properly directed, need not be divorced from the common good."
Rask marries highly intelligent Helen Brevoort, a character based on Bevel's wife, Mildred Howland. He lavishes praise on his wife, puts her on a pedestal, but one in the lesser gallery of supportive, graceful, attentive, almost childlike women. As his fortune skyrockets in the 1920s, Helen's health declines. Part One ends as Rask takes her to a wacky Swiss sanatorium that only speeds her agonizing demise.
This "fictional" story established, Diaz is just getting started with his imbricated tale.
Incensed at what he sees as defamatory falsehoods in the novel based on his life, Bevel in Part 2 pens a book called "My Life." It is a dull effort, told in outline form, with tantalizing parts indicated only in notes: "add colorful anecdotes," "the incident on the riverbank," hostile political conditions."
Bevel insists (suspiciously often) that his schemes played no part in the 1929 stock-market crash or the Great Depression.
Bevel recalls his late wife in the blandest of chauvinist platitudes, a signal that a mystery awaits.
Part 3 of "Trust" is a memoir by Ida Partenza, a poor young New Yorker whose émigré father is a diehard Italian communist and anticapitalist. Bevel hires Ida from his company's secretarial pool to transcribe another try at his autobiography. Ida later comes to realize that Vanner and Rask each underplayed the role Helen/Mildred played in her husband's fame and fortune.
That point, teased out in Ida's memoir, is resolved in a short final part told directly in Mildred Bevel's diaries, unearthed by Ida decades later. Reading it is like standing atop a lighthouse as a fog slowly clears.
With great skill and using multiple voices, Diaz employs his inventive structure to offer intriguing insights into the hidden roles played by subservient women — both entitled (Helen/Mildred) and disenfranchised (Ida).
Which opens the question: In history are hidden how many Mildreds?
Claude Peck is a writer and editor. He lives in Minneapolis and Palm Springs, California.
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This story was originally published May 4, 2022 4:30 AM.