For evil to triumph, it is necessary only for good people to do nothing. There can be no denying the moral decline of the Western empire over the past two decades when you see it written down: it all happened while most of us looked the other way. CK Stead’s latest novel is set against this background. It opens in 2002, as Sam Nola is returning to England from a holiday in France. His bus driver has an altercation with a passenger and, in a fury, drives off the motorway, along a country lane, through a farm gate and into a field. There, he abandons the bus, provoking general panic among its passengers who fear the bus might be bombed. After all, the driver is swarthy and might be from the Middle East. When Sam relates this experience to a group of his friends at dinner, it exposes the deep division in politics that has arisen since Tony Blair and George W Bush set their sights on war in Iraq. There are those who can see how flimsy the pretext is; but there are those who are prepared to let their leaders lead them whither they will. None so blind as they who will not see.
Meanwhile, Sam has just landed a job with Interbank America, and is getting his first taste of high finance and the City. He’s a lawyer not a banker, so the intricacies and convolutions of the sophisticated financial “instruments” being devised are a little mystifying, as are the reasons he receives a huge bonus at the end of his first year. Lies and greed are everywhere, if you care to look. Sam is a Kiwi with a love of literature and modest literary ambitions of his own. He seems like a decent fellow. He is a serial adulterer, but means no harm. He has a failed marriage behind him, but his children bear him no ill will. A daughter by a previous relationship comes into his life, and he and Letty become firm friends.
When Reuben, his boss, sends him to a banking conference in Croatia and suggests he meet up with a Hungarian colleague there, Sam obliges: the foreigner hands him an envelope containing, he says, the number and access codes for a Swiss account containing a lot of money. This was intended for Reuben, but they have just learnt Reuben has been killed in a motorcycle accident. When Sam asks what he should do with it, it’s plain the Hungarian doesn’t care. Sam is capable of recognising a moral dilemma when he sees one, but the senior banker he consults doesn’t want to know. It is, of course, on just such wilful blindness that the whole political and financial house of cards is built. Sam and his relationships are in the foreground, but it’s at the moral bankruptcy of the times that Stead is aiming. It is masterfully done, with an admirable lightness of touch and a cool rationality that is rare when memories are so fresh and emotions so raw.
The writing is a delight in itself, and full of Stead’s love of literary allusion. He crafts for one of his characters a splendid Baxteresque ballad for the times, which finishes with a verse wonderfully apt for those who liked to fish in troubled waters, “counting chickens before they hatched,/banking on feathers”:
A cold wind blows on the rolling earth,
Poor Tom’s a-cold in his brain:
The chicken is plucked that sang heigh-ho
The wind and the rain.
RISK, by CK Stead (MacLehose, $29.99).
John McCrystal is a writer and reviewer.