Did This Guy Cause the Stock Market Crash of 1929?
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Hernan Diaz’s book, Trust, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2023. Of course, this means it got reviewed in many impressive places. I’ll quote from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and NPR. All three of these reviews focus on the importance of the book’s title. I’ll get back to that in a moment, but first let me explain what the book is about and how it is constructed.
The novel is told in four parts, all covering the same basic story but from four very different points of view. All sections are about a fabulously wealthy financier in the 1920s who may or may not have caused the stock market crash with his methodology of selling short. (I will never understand exactly what that means, but a thorough knowledge of the stock market is not needed to enjoy this novel.) This character’s name is Andrew Bevel. His wife is Mildred.
Section one of the book is called, “Bonds: A Novel by Harold Vanner.” This section goes on for almost 125 pages and is the story of a fabulously wealthy financier named Benjamin Rask, who was indeed part of 1929’s stock market crash. Rask’s wife, Helen Brevoort Rask, is a large part of the fiction with her charitable work at first and then with her tragic decline and horrible death. It is not until we get to the other sections that we realize Harold Vanner is writing his conjectured version of the lives of Andrew and Mildred Bevel.
Section two is a memoir called, “My Life by Andrew Bevel.” It is about 65 pages long. Andrew starts off strong writing with great detail, but before long, he peters out and outlines sections instead of writing them. He uses space savers like “MATH in great detail. Precocious talent. Anecdotes.” Readers will wonder who will fill in these details. Readers will also note that he goes to great lengths to make himself a hero and savior during the stock market crash. He also wants to write glowingly about his deceased wife, though he’s a little uncertain about what made her so wonderful.
In section three we meet the one who will add details to Andrew Bevel’s book. She is Ida Partenza, a twenty-three-year-old woman who was hired in 1938 to help with Bevel’s memoir, which for all intents and purposes is his rebuttal to the novel by Harold Vanner. Andrew Bevel wanted “to have [his] version of it out there.” As Ida meets with Andrew to get all the details – or lack thereof – she does her best to create (make up out of thin air?) a plausible story. Suffice it to say that the vagueness of everything Andrew says about Mildred is perplexing in this section that goes on for over 160 pages.
At the end of the section, it is decades later. Ida is in her seventies and Andrew Bevel is long deceased. Ida reads in the Smithsonian Magazine about the Bevel Foundation and the fact that it has placed the personal papers of Andrew and Mildred Bevel into the museum’s collection. Such documents are available to the public. Thus, Ida goes to look through those museum boxes. It is in the last one that she finds “a slim notebook wedged into the middle section of a ledger.”
The fourth section of the book – 40 pages long – is the slim notebook in its entirety. If you look at the book’s table of contents, you will see who the narrator is. I will leave it to you to figure it out or look it up. Suffice it to say this notebook tells all.
Or so it seems, but really, with four versions, which one do we trust?
As I mentioned earlier, the topic of trust is a main point in all three reviews I read of the book.
- Michael Gorra in the New York Times says that trust is “both a moral quality and a financial arrangement, [it’s] as though virtue and money [are] synonymous. The term also has a literary bearing: Can we trust this tale? Is this narrator reliable?”
- Maureen Corrigan of NPR says, “You can’t trust this novel. And that’s a very good thing.”
- Ron Charles in the Washington Post says, “Trust is about an early 20th-century investor. Or at least it seems to be. Everything about this cunning story makes a mockery of its title.”
I should note that there were actually two Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction in 2023. Trust by Hernan Diaz and Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver. While I liked Hernan Diaz’s book very much, I liked Barbara Kingsolver’s even better. After you read both of them, come back and vote for your choice of the best of the best. I TRUST that one will speak to you more than the other. I look forward to hearing which one you choose!
Learn more about Trust here.
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