Wednesday, July 17, 2024

“Long Island Compromise,” Reviewed | The New Yorker

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The rich are always crying poverty when it comes time to pay a ransom: “Net worth and liquidity are not the same thing!” Across cinema, the moneyed and their auxiliaries question the kidnappers’ math. In the film “Fargo,” the wealthy father of Jean Lundegaard (of wood-chipper infamy) grumbles, “A million dollars is a lot of damn money.” In the action thriller “Rush Hour,” the men who kidnapped the daughter of a Chinese diplomat call to demand fifty million dollars, to which the L.A.P.D. detective James Carter (Chris Tucker) exclaims, “Fifty million dollars?! Who you think you kidnapped, Chelsea Clinton?” The real-life haggling can get just as protracted. In 1973, the oil tycoon J. Paul Getty did not agree to pay his grandson’s kidnappers until several months after the initial ransom letter, when a bloody ear turned up. Even then, Getty paid only the maximum he could claim as a tax write-off.

Not so with the Fletchers, the “extraordinarily, absurdly, kidnappably rich” family at the heart of “Long Island Compromise” (Random House), by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. When Carl Fletcher is abducted outside his estate, in 1980, his family quickly coughs up the cash; Carl’s wife, Ruth, withdraws two hundred and fifty thousand dollars from the bank like she’s getting a coffee to go. (She is married to the heir to a Styrofoam fortune, after all.) She delivers a briefcase with the money to a baggage carrousel at J.F.K. Airport, and, within minutes, Carl is dropped outside a Mobil bathroom, drenched in piss, vomit, and relief.

Before Carl’s kidnapping, the only thing that residents of the fictional hamlet of Middle Rock, Long Island, had to fear was radiation from their microwave ovens. But the Fletchers hand over the ransom so readily that it is as if they’ve been expecting calamity to strike. In fact, they have been through something like this before. Carl’s father, Zelig Fletcher, fled to New York from Poland in 1942, with nothing to his name but a formula for polystyrene and the knowledge that, for Jews like him, money and family could disappear with no warning. He traumatized—or prepared—his children with a catchall phrase to describe every misfortune, from busted machinery to the Holocaust: “There’s a dybbuk in the works.” In Jewish folklore, a dybbuk is an evil spirit “that either warded off or provoked unexplainable happenstance like an infestation of ants in a sugar bowl or Cossacks murdering your siblings in front of you.” Zelig pursued fortune as a protective amulet. The family needed enough money to repair the havoc a dybbuk could wreak. So what if the Styrofoam factory that he built polluted Long Island Sound? As he learned in his harrowing exit from Europe, you do what you have to do to survive.

Brodesser-Akner is a keen observer of class aspiration as a survival method. In Middle Rock, the first American suburb that’s fifty per cent Jewish, ostentatious wealth is a disguise, a nervous attempt by the town’s residents to camouflage their minority status against the backdrop of the American Dream. “They fixed their noses into pointy things and dyed their hair blond and founded pool clubs and boat clubs so that the transformation was complete and no one would be able to pick them out from the general population and send them into slavery or off to concentration camps again. Their very own Canaan,” Brodesser-Akner writes.

What has all that wealth cost them? In “Long Island Compromise,” Brodesser-Akner tries to do the math. Ruth, who does not come from money, looks at her family and can only see what it has subtracted from their lives. Carl’s abduction, which turns out to be a bit of class warfare, has given him P.T.S.D. Her children grow up to underachieve as only people whose bills are covered by someone else can afford to. Any story about the American suburbs has to wrestle with the high price we pay for physical safety and the spiritual danger that comfort invites into our lives in the process. Brodesser-Akner asks whether wealth itself is a poltergeist, troubling the waters of the Fletchers’ swimming pool and marble bathtub. Or do the rest of us need to believe that money takes a toll on the rich so that we don’t go crazy and kidnap one of them?

Writing about money is Brodesser-Akner’s bread and butter. At the New York Times Magazine, she covered the life styles of the rich and famous as a writer of celebrity profiles. Her début novel, “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” was, perhaps not coincidentally, about the crazy-making effects of being around absurdly wealthy people (and also the absurdities of wealthy people). That book, like “Long Island Compromise,” begins with a missing parent. One morning, the high-powered talent agent and high-strung Manhattan mom Rachel Fleishman kidnaps herself to attend the Kripalu wellness retreat while she processes years of Middle Rock-esque striving. Most of the novel is told from the perspective of Toby, her soon-to-be ex-husband, who complains that his wife spread herself too thin in her efforts to keep up with the Leffers, a Fletcher-like family who hired German tutors for their children to prep for Christmas vacations in Deutschland. To Toby, they “sounded like soldiers in the Third fucking Reich,” but it was music to Rachel’s ears—until she drowned out the siren call of aspiration with the sound of her own tension-releasing primal screams at Kripalu.

“Fleishman Is in Trouble” was turned into a Hulu miniseries, with Brodesser-Akner serving as its head writer and showrunner. In her latest novel, she draws on her time in Tinseltown. Extended portions of “Long Island Compromise” take place in Hollywood, where the middle Fletcher child, Beamer, is a floundering screenwriter. Years after making a comedy about a rich Mexican teen-ager who gets kidnapped but then falls in love with his captor’s daughter, he keeps pitching studios variations of the same B movie: “ ‘Gone by Dinnertime,’ a romantic comedy about a man who, years after graduation, kidnaps his high school crush without realizing it”; “ ‘Physical Education,’ a fast-moving romp about four teenagers who try to kidnap their math teacher but accidentally end up with their gym teacher”; and so on. At one point, he pretends to be his more successful former writing partner, Charlie, hoping to get a return call from Mandy Patinkin.

Charlie, too, is from Middle Rock, but his family was middle class. A TV show he wrote and produced, “Family Business,” “about a family in Queens whose adult children were engaged in a constant fight for taking over the family factory,” becomes a cultural sensation, both a critical darling of the chattering class and a political touchpoint, responsible even “for some renewed labor organizing in the younger generations and at least one piece of legislation regarding inheritance taxes.”

The Fletchers suspect that the show is about them. Readers of “Long Island Compromise” will suspect that “Family Business” is about the HBO hit “Succession.” Like Logan Roy—the self-made patriarch at the center of that series—the elder Fletchers are forced to watch as their children squander the fruits of their labor. Beamer’s older brother, Nathan, is an anxious land-use lawyer who, when he first heard of the profession, became “drunk on the promise of a life of low-risk nonconfrontational tedium.” Their sister, Jenny, a socialist who studies economics at Yale, is a prodigy, good at all she tries, except for destroying her family’s wealth and the system that enables it to exist. She wants her father’s factory workers to unionize, and hopes that class struggle as a movement will replace class struggle as psychodrama in Middle Rock. Her plan is to “fight against the whole diaphanous premise that they”—the Fletchers—“based their greed and clannishness upon: that whatever they had to do for money was justified because once, a long, long time ago, Jews trusting the world and playing by the rules didn’t go so well.” But Jenny struggles to graduate from theory to praxis, and squats in her parents’ Manhattan brownstone, where she plays a video game about having a job and attending H.R. meetings.

Every quarter, the Fletcher siblings each receive nearly one million dollars from the factory’s earnings. Their mother feels like “the bottom could fall out anytime,” but the Fletcher children associate hitting bottom with being sent to an upscale rehab facility. Beamer blows his money on maintaining a Hollywood life style (couples therapy, black-market weight-loss drugs, his wife’s dermatologist-cum-psychologist). Nathan becomes addicted to buying insurance (including kidnapping insurance). Jenny gives so much of her money away that the I.R.S. nearly puts her in a negative tax bracket.

The novel names this state of affairs the Long Island Compromise: people born poor will struggle but be resourceful, whereas those born rich will turn into basket cases but never have to wonder how they’ll pay the therapist. But a plot twist threatens that equilibrium. In a complicated set of financial transactions that the Fletcher children barely comprehend (the family business has never been any of their business), their factory is being sold out from under them.

Could this calamity force House Fletcher to downsize? The opening line of the novel reads, “Do you want to hear a story with a terrible ending?” It’s our first clue that the Fletcher kids might very well survive the threat that comes their way from private equity, the dybbuk of our era. Compromises, it turns out, are for the rest of us, because the only thing more indestructible than Styrofoam is inherited wealth. ♦

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