June/July/Aug 2012

J R Redux

Catching up with William Gaddis's elusive financier

Mark Binelli


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Lynne Cohen, Corporate Office, from Occupied Territory (Aperture, 2012). Courtesy Lynne Cohen and Stephen Daiter Gallery.

“The original ‘J R’ burst on the scene in a novel in 1975, an unkempt 11-year-old whose penny stock and defaulted bond operations blossomed into a vast and perilous financial empire through his simple creed of ‘get all you can’ by obeying the letter of the law and evading its spirit at every turn. What has become of him in the 12 years since? The scene is a recent Congressional hearing on the Federal budget.”

—William Gaddis, “Trickle-Up Economics: J R Goes to Washington,” the New York Times, October 25, 1987

WITH APOLOGIES TO W G, and in honor of a handsome new Dalkey Archive Press reissue of J R, we couldn’t help but check in once again with the elusive financier. The scene is a recent public-television roundtable discussion.

—Welcome to the broadcast. Tonight, we take a break from discussing the present state of the economy to look back at a little-remembered crisis from the 1970s. Joining me first, by phone, is Mr. J R Van . . .

—Charlie? Wait hey look, ma’am I’m talking, could you stop rattling that door please . . .

—J R? Are you calling from a . . . telephone booth?

—Yes, I’m sorry about that. Boy some people.

—Where the hell did he find a phone booth?

—Hold on, Elizabeth, we’ll be with you in a minute. We have the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau creator and US Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren standing by via satellite from Cambridge. But J R, let me start with you. What’s fascinating about your story is that, in this era of credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations, all of these unimaginably arcane financial transactions comprehensible to only the most sophisticated of investors . . .

—You’re talking about the people who like bundled up all of these here supreme mortgages . . .

—Well, ah, in a sense, yes. But in your case, J R, and correct me if I’m wrong, your initial contract with the US military involved a huge shipment of surplus forks you had ordered from . . . Do I have this right? From the back of a comic book?

—Well hey, what was I supposed to do? Remember I was in the sixth grade. Like I mean what were you reading in . . .

—Fair enough. My friend Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, is here in the studio. Welcome back to this table, sir.

—Thank you, Charlie. Pleasure to be here.

—When did you first become aware of J R?

—Well, I think like many of us, after reading his book . . .

—Not my book, I mean what a bunch of . . .

—Of course, J R, forgive me, I misspoke. But what I was starting to say was, as much as I love the book, I find this conversation a bit misguided. I mean, for me, personally? The glorious dislocating effect of a nearly eight-hundred-page work sustained almost entirely via unattributed dialogue, the formal brilliance inherent in such a deceptively cacophonous structure—that, to me, is Gaddis’s towering achievement, and so for us to sit here and focus on something so quotidian as theme at the expense of . . .

—J R, let’s talk about the book. In one section, you make a fateful class trip to Wall Street . . .

—“Engulfed in the roar of the subway until they burst from the pavement where the sun cut a path across Trinity Church . . .”

—That was former labor secretary Robert Reich, apparently quoting the text from memory, via satellite from Berkeley. Thank you, Robert. Please don’t interrupt me again.

—I’m sorry, Charlie.

—J R, what do you make of Occupy Wall Street?

—Well you can’t see me in this here phone booth, Charlie, but I’m doing that downward finger-twinkling thing and no hey, but look I never meant to, no no, not at all, sir, these here like dangling fingers were not directed at your daughter in any lewd, no disrespect I mean like please sir! The glass is going to break . . .

—It sounds like we’re having some difficulties in the phone booth. Joining us now via satellite from a campaign stop in Clyde, Ohio, is GOP presidential nominee, and a man with no small amount of experience in the business world, Mitt Romney. Governor Romney, welcome.

—Thank you, Charlie. J R, congratulations!

—Governor, are you troubled by the fact that a sixth-grader could so easily manipulate the financial system of this country, and do you see that as an indictment of what some have called the casino culture of Wall Street? A recent Frontline documentary implied certain forms of high-level Wall Street trading are in essence no different than betting on the Super Bowl.

—Oh, I beg to differ, Charlie—I mean, if you bet on the Super Bowl and your team loses, you have to pay up! Ha-ha. I kid. But seriously, no, people who read J R as some sort of indictment of the childishness and mindless stupidity of American capitalism, I would ask them, couldn’t you also read the book as a celebration of American capitalism’s hope and innocence?

—(Cough) Bullshit.

—Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz. Professor, welcome.

—Charlie? Two points.

—Governor Romney, go ahead.

—Point one, I would argue that J R belongs to a continuum of precocious young literary heroes, whether we’re talking about the Glass family or that kid from Rushmore, who should be celebrated for their pluck and moxie, not demonized by people like Barack Obama who have never created a job in their life.

—I’m not sure that the president has weighed in on . . .

—Second point: Let’s talk about what Gaddis was doing in the twenty years it took him to write about J R. His last novel, The Recognitions, had not done so well—the market had spoken, harshly, as she sometimes does—but did Mr. Gaddis ask for a government bailout? No, he did not. He went to work in the private sector, for great American companies like Pfizer and IBM and Kodak, and that’s what gave him the real-world experience to write so presciently about finance and capital. You know, he later described those years as some of the proudest in his life.

—I’m not sure that he ever actually said . . .

—We’ll just have to agree to disagree, Ke$ha, and let the American people decide.

—The pop star Ke$ha has joined us.

—Charlie?

—Secretary Reich?

—Here’s a quote relevant to today. “I’m like acting for the corporation doing all this stuff for these here stockholders with this limited reliability it’s like the corporation did it itself which you can’t go put a corporation in jail, I mean it would be like sticking this bunch of papers in jail see so . . .”

—J R, those were your words, and so it’s only fitting we let you have the last word . . . J R . . . ? Are you there? Have we lost him? J R . . . ?

Mark Binelli is a novelist, journalist, and contributing editor at Rolling Stone. His latest book, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, will be published by Metropolitan Books in November.

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