T he initial public offering of Dana Vachon’s first novel, the Wall Street satire Mergers & Acquisitions, was still a few weeks off when we met for lunch at Le Colonial, a sort of Indochina theme restaurant on East 57th Street where the ceiling fans turn slowly and even the wait staff seem stunned by the nonexistent tropical humidity. Vachon is 28 and dressed for a Saturday of shopping in downtown Greenwich, in a blazer and open-necked Ralph Lauren shirt and loafers. He’d suggested this place because it was where the send-off party was held for Roger Thorne—the name of a character in his book—when he “left to be a war profiteer.” Except that never happened in the book. Oh, he meant the real-life Thorne, the one he met at JPMorgan, where he started interning in his sophomore year in college in 2000 and went to work in 2002.
Like Bright Lights, Big City and The Devil Wears Prada, M&A is a fictionalized account of the moral hazards of high-status Manhattan professional life. Part of its pitch, its intrusive thrill, is that it’s reality-based. The narrator is Tommy Quinn, “the worst young investment banker on Wall Street,” who, like Vachon (who’d admit only to being “very incompetent”), grew up privileged in Westchester. Quinn went to Georgetown; Vachon chose Duke, where he was Kappa Sigma, a political-science major, and a humor columnist. He admired P. J. O’Rourke and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. After 9/11, he read the Tolkien books, imagining America as the Shire.
Both Quinn and Vachon got their investment-banking gigs thanks to their fathers’ connections. Quinn’s firm, J.S. Spenser, stands in for JPMorgan, which between Vachon’s sophomore- and junior-year internships merged into the Chase empire. It’s pretty clear Vachon thought that was the beginning of the end. Spenser skimps on training its associates, and perhaps most galling, its once-classy logo has been replaced by something in a “nascar font.”
“The firm got sold and it was a very different experience,” Vachon says over spring rolls, which he was smashing apart with a fork and knife even after the waiter came over to show him how to pick them up with lettuce leaves. “But by that point you’re a junior and you know you need a job and the big political-science companies weren’t hiring that year, or at least not hiring 3.1’s. So I was very happy and lucky to be working.”
Vachon is not a fuckup. “I think I was the second-highest-ranked intern in the class against kids from MIT because it wasn’t quantitative, it was just sort of how you conducted yourself.” Like Thorne, he knows the difference between a Turnbull & Asser and a Thomas Pink shirt “blindfolded,” but “only because the collar’s obvious. That comparison got no points from its public, because it’s sort of duh. Which is actually a greater joke.” One of Vachon’s jobs was to run the auction of the historic Morgan headquarters at 23 Wall Street after the merger. At the same time, he started freelance writing a bit. His first piece was for Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative, which he pitched after attending a John Kerry fund-raiser on the Intrepid. “I was just taken aback by the mixed messages,” he says. While his parents are Republicans who now dislike Bush, he calls himself a “libertarian.” He went on to write for Salon and the Times “Styles” section. His review of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, set at a fictionalized Duke, for the Conservative lamented how irony had undermined everything—“That is when all is lost: morality and meaning become relative.”
And M&A is, between all its farces, very sincere—moralistic the way only a canny, well-educated Catholic boy unintimidated by the world can be. The book opens with a lavish engagement party at the New York Racquet and Tennis Club, and Quinn sets the tone by declaring, “You hated loving being there.” Later, he says, “We expect too much of God and too little of ourselves.” But Vachon doesn’t expect too much of his characters, who, despite being based on people he knows, are reliably consistent in their behavior. There’s Thorne, vulgar, shallow, and lucky, whose tagline is the affirmation “big time.” There’s Terrence Mathers, Quinn’s boss, who tells him not to worry about ethics because “people buy crap all the time … that’s how wealth is built.” There’s Sophie Dvornik, an S&M enthusiast who works at the PaceWildenstein gallery. Her big artist is Yves Grandchatte, who has FUCK SHIT tattooed across his fingers and who shows up to a party in his honor at MoMA wearing a T-shirt with NAMBLA on it.
The only character he says “actually has no model” is the girlfriend, Frances Sloan, which is just as well, since she’s more or less an angel—albeit one with a few psychiatric tics. At one point she throws all of her family’s ancestral portraits out a window onto Park Avenue. She also gets one of the book’s funnier sobriquets when she names a friend—who’s dating a filmmaker she was convinced was just short—“midgetfucker.” Vachon says this actually happened, and credits the line to his friend, the blogging pioneer Elizabeth Spiers, the one who persuaded him to blog, too. “I was just a very unhappy person who really wanted a writing outlet,” he says. The blog was his break—the media fetishizes those who can write about Wall Street, because they aren’t easy to come by. “Those with stories to tell are not inclined to tell them, and those who are inclined can’t,” says Vachon. But “I also knew there hadn’t been a Wall Street book since Monkey Business,” in 2000. Friends at Morgan who did some work for its writers told Vachon, “ ‘Yeah, their book made x.’ And I’m like, there was a market for that book, there’s a market for another Wall Street book.” He didn’t quit Morgan until he sold his book (along with a second novel, for a reported $650,000). “I know my audience. They don’t read a book a week. My audience is people who are going to go out and buy this book because they’ve heard they have to read it.” And see the movie: The producers of Babel have optioned M&A.
Leaving Le Colonial, he mentions that he’s having dinner with the real-life Sophie Dvornik. She’s not mad? “I think she could tell at some point that the torch got handed to the character itself.”
Vachon first became known for DNasty, the anonymous blog he wrote from Morgan, which Elizabeth Spiers linked to on the blog she wrote at the time for New York Magazine. Exactly two weeks later, the agent David Kuhn—a former editor at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker—heard about it at a party and sent him an e-mail and they met for a drink. “Everybody thinks the blog birthed the book, but that’s not totally true,” Vachon says. “But the blog definitely birthed David.”
Mergers & Acquisitions
By Dana Vachon. Riverhead Books. 292 Pages. $23.95.