February 5, 2016

“I read nonfiction for information, fiction for truth”: Michael M. Thomas on Fixers



Last week, in celebration of the publication of his novel Fixers, Michael M. Thomas gave a reading at PowerHouse Arena. Here is an abridged version of his opening remarks.


The main reason we are gathered here this evening is for me to tell you about Fixers: to give you some idea of what inspired it, what choices went into its writing, and what I think I was up to—and wasn’t up to—in writing it.

Let’s start with the obvious. The facts and situations with which it deals, the 2008 election, the financial crisis and bailout, the curious role of Goldman Sachs and others in various transactions: these are all matters of record that have been written up one side and down the other in a flood of nonfiction books and articles beginning in 2009 in a mad rush to be the first on Charlie Rose. I decided to wait and see what turned up.

So why a novel? When it comes to Wall Street, novels are like Rodney Dangerfield—they don’t get no respect.

I beg to differ. I read nonfiction for information, fiction for truth.

The situations a writer explores are often like the jigsaw puzzles one finds in a rented summer house, usually missing one or two key pieces. This especially true of situations that involve confidentiality, corruption, and complexity. In other words, the conjunction of politics and finance, or, as in Fixers: Washington and Wall Street.

These missing pieces can only be supplied by imagination supported by research. When you’re putting your narrative together, you need to keep in mind Adlai Stevenson’s famous admonition, “This is the conclusion on which I base my facts.” In other words, what the imagination comes up with must have a reasonable degree of plausibility, a foundation in what is known for a fact or is a matter of record. This is why I tell people that Fixers is fiction for the nonfiction reader.

Bearing that in mind, let’s turn to Fixers specifically, and in the spirit of the small child who asks its mother where babies come from, see how this novel came to be conceived. I can give you an exact date. November 21, 2008. Before I explain the specific significance of that date, let’s step back and look at a bit of context. Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States on November 4, 2008. Like millions of people, I had voted for him. My eyes had misted up when he made his appearance in Grant Park on election night, and again the next morning when the headline on The New York Times was the single word “Obama.”

By then, the financial crisis was fully advanced. Lehman had gone under in mid-September. In mid-October the heads of the big banks had been summoned to Washington to be told by the Bush treasury and the Fed what the terms of a bailout would be. The country was sliding into recession. Things were a mess, and if anyone was to blame, it was thought to be Wall Street. Like many who supported Obama, I expected him to go after Wall Street for the reckless greed that had propelled the country into crisis. Which is not to say that I expected him to call forth the tumbrils and exhort the populace to set up the guillotines. What I did expect was that he would rock the street on its collective heels, and create an unstoppable momentum for reform before Wall Street could marshall its array of bought and paid-for whores and liars on Capitol Hill.

This was the moment to go after the street, which at this point had been so busy digging into the pockets of the taxpayers for bailout money, that it hadn’t had time to mobilize its propaganda machine to start spreading the word that the crisis hadn’t been brought down on us by the big banks and other money-movers—that it was someone else’s fault. The government’s, the borrowers, you, me. The Wall Street line incorporated the interesting notion that Citi Group, for instance, which had trafficked in hundreds of billions worth of debt-related transactions, which employed serried ranks of Harvard and Stanford MBAs and quants at starting salaries of $150k/year, had been brought to its knees as a result of fraudulent loans taken out by barely literate men and women earning $5 an hour picking artichokes or washing windows in places like Sacramento. In other words, I expected our new president-elect to do a Pecora.

Pecora may be a name unfamiliar to many of you. So let me supply a quick bit of potted history. Ferdinand Pecora was the special counsel appointed in 1933, during FDR’s first months in office, to put Wall Street on the defensive in hearings held by the Senate Banking Committee. This he did. The great men of finance, the partners of JP Morgan & Co. especially, were shown by their own words to be a bunch of money-grubbing insiders, and the Wall Street they dominated to be a nest of snakes and leeches.

Pecora sent no one to jail—but what he did accomplish was to create a mood in the nation and in Washington that enabled passage of those great monuments of financial reform: the Glass-Steagall Act, the Securities Acts of 1933 and 1934 principal among them, that kept Wall Street pretty much on the up and up until the 1990s, when they were repealed and castrated in what history will record as a time of legislative infamy. So when I say that I expected Obama to do a Pecora, I’m talking about an effort to turn back the regulatory clock and set Wall Street’s feet back on the path of righteousness.

Well, no such luck, because on November 21, 2008, in the middle of the trading day, with the stock market still in the doldrums, the Obama transition team leaked the information that the new administration’s finance and economics team would be headed by Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner.

This was not what I expected. It was not what many Obama voters expected. As a character in Fixers observes, appointing those two—in the novel they’re called Harley Winters and Thomas Holloway—to oversee the nation’s finances is like naming a couple of Klu Klux Klansmen to run the NAACP. Summers had been an important figure in the deregulatory movement that let loose the hounds of greed in the 1990s. Time magazine cover: The committee to save the world. Geithner, the man at the New York Fed who had bank oversight, was less well-known outside wall street, but in the concrete canyons he was esteemed as a chap one could “work with,” quote unquote. The market got the message. From nowheresville it headed north and closed the day with Dow up 400 points. The next trading day it added another 500 points.

I was puzzled. These appointments made no sense, not for a reform-bent new president. But often matters that make no sense in the normal way of things follow a hidden logic that, as I said earlier, require either imagination, a blown whistle or a suicide note to puzzle out. Blown whistles are rarer on Wall Street than we like to think, but suicide notes—by which I mean indiscreet emails that regulators and prosecutors can feast on—have become amazingly common. I don’t know what is it about email that turns adult people with discretion over billions of dollars and corporate secrets into legally self-immolating idiots, blowhards and blabbermouths, but it seems to. As a lawyer friend tells me—I use the quote in Fixers: “I advise my clients that the ‘e’ in ‘email’ stands for ‘evidence.’”

In my case, when I looked at the Summers-Geithner news with a wild surmise—I said to myself, this makes so little sense there must be something here I’m missing. Wall Street measures out its existence in transactions, in each of which there are buyers and sellers, in which for every quid there’s a quo. So then I asked myself: suppose the Summers-Geithner appointments are a quid, what might be the quo? Just suppose, I asked myself, and then I let my imagination run wild and create a narrative that would plausibly link up a known quo with a hypothetical quid.

The result would be Fixers.

I knew the kind of book I didn’t want to write: a conventional thriller. I’ve done a couple of those, with plots that involve tinkering with trading formulas et cetera and so on—or an anti-Wall Street screed posing as a story. I’d done that, too: in my New York Observer column over the course of some twenty-odd years. I simply wanted to create an alternative history for a period in our history that has produced some decidedly odd outcomes as this nation marches relentlessly toward a kind of postmodern feudalism.

The novel is in the form of a diary, in which the reader is directly addressed by a single narrator. The first part of the diary covers the period from early 2007 to late 2010, at which point the diarist lays down his digital pen, thinking he’s done with it. Then, in the second part, which covers the fortnight that includes Christmas and New Year’s 2014, for reasons that have to do—literally—with a change of heart, he resumes his narrative. I should add that a few paragraphs further in, Chauncey states that he sees his diary as his gift to history, in these words: “You might say I intend to bridge the gap between the true facts of the matter and what the public will have been told.”

Once I had the Summers-Geithner/winters-holloway narrative template to work with, I realized this wouldn’t suffice for a whole novel. But with my very considerable experience of wall street, fifty-odd years going back to 1961, I knew that if I was patient, other story arcs would prrsent themselves—and so they did.

A couple of specific situations:
Gs made whole on $20 billion in defaulted aig swaps
And a few more general themes.
The impotence of the media. Muckrakers. Bully pulpit.
The idea of good big money battling bad big money for the soul of the nation

And then, just for fun, I introduce in a sideways manner the notion of what I call synedochal terrorism. A synedoche is a figure ofspeech in which a part is taken to represent the whole. Synedochal terrorism seeks to teach the 1% to behave by making an example of a very few of them.

Fixers is on sale now. You can buy your copy here or at your neighborhood independent bookstore.



Michael M. Thomas is the bestselling author of nine novels, including The Ropespinner Conspiracy, Hard Money, Hanover Place, and Love and Money. His journalism has appeared widely, including in The New York Times, The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and in a regular column for the New York Observer.