A Billionaire Bender to Save the Fucking World

An excerpt from THE AUDACITY by Ryan Chapman, recommended by Kevin Nguyen

Introduction by Kevin Nguyen

I love the way rich people talk. Or at least, I love the way they talk as imagined by Ryan Chapman. They complain about kids these days. “Dynasties are wasted on the young.” They have opinions about fine art. “Even a minor Warhol’s worth more than three hundred grand.” Rich people don’t get wasted, they pretentiously engage in “ruinous intake.” But while the language might have the register of old money, all people—rich or poor—just need to turn up every once in a while. The wealthy: they’re just like us, only more fun to hate.


This is the careful dance that Chapman performs throughout The Audacity, a thorough and satisfying skewering of an illuminati-level elite. It’s not enough to poke fun at the rich—as an exercise, that would tire itself out in far too few pages to constitute a novel. Instead, Chapman performs a two-fold trick: first, he imbues his characters—his ambivalent main character Guy, and Guy’s Elizabeth Holmes-inspired missing wife Victoria, especially—with motives and desires that are grounded and relatable. Then, he embeds them in an absolute farce. Which is how Guy winds up on a secret island, with people who believe that the world’s problems can be solved with money, a Davos-esque meeting of the minds, and heavy drinking—sorry, “ruinous intake.”

If you had the pleasure of reading Chapman’s first book, Riots I Have Known, you know that he can land a high-concept satire. (Riots is about a literary magazine in a prison.) Similarly, The Audacity is a novel with a heightened sense of reality. It’s not just the opulence of the secret Caribbean island where the story takes place—it’s the glimpse of an existence that is louder and more colorful than the universe we live in. And, of course, like any good satire, it’s funny—sometimes dryly funny, but in many moments actually laugh-out-loud funny. Later in the book, for example, someone tries to justify the fraud perpetrated by Victoria’s company: “A scam is just innovation with scalability.” And in the world of Chapman’s novel, that’s a perfectly reasonable defense . . . and maybe it’s what people get away with in the real world, too.

I laughed when I read the “scam” line because I thought it was clever, and I laughed again when I re-read it a second time because I realized it was clever and true. That’s the experience of reading Chapman’s work, you’ll see something as funny—a joke, a character, an entire plot—and then you’ll recognize the ugly truth buried inside it.

– Kevin Nguyen
Author of New Waves

A Billionaire Bender to Save the Fucking World

An excerpt from The Audacity by Ryan Chapman

He took in air. Compared to Manhattan’s concrete sentries, Averman’s island was a state of nature. Or, relatively: They’d landed on a fresh tarmac carved out of the jungle and skirted by a comically long hangar. To the left, rows of idling Jeeps. Above, a sky the size of a sky. And all around, an atmosphere rehabilitated with newborn oxygen.

This felt right. Nobody here would know his circumstances, not fully. He’d sent Averman the barest outline of V’s disappearance. There would be perfunctory inquiries, a show of bereavement—To lose one’s wife! So suddenly! And not just any wife, but Victoria Stevens!—and then Guy would be given room to fully embrace his denial. He’d carouse and collapse; they’d look the other way.

The Quorum: a punctuation to his misspent life. He would enact a prohibition against self-awareness, against awareness of any kind. Guy would exist simply. And then, after public revelations forfeited the simple existence, he would exit simply as well.

He waited on the airstairs as the pilot collected his bags. He inhaled again, as deeply as his phlegmatic respiration allowed, stopping at the wet rattle in the lower throat.

A simple existence required discipline. To live without thought was challenging enough; add rigorous self-sabotage and you court failure. But he’d been firsthand witness to the continual challenging of the limits of human capacity. V said it was a matter of wherewithal. And while he lacked her brains and brio, he could imitate her unyielding will. 

Oh. A glandular swell under the jaw. He turned and voided onto the black airstrip. It was improbably milky and—good news—free of blood.

A rude moue from the pilot. Uncalled for, really. Guy was so obviously a wreck, so obviously freshly upended, one would think a little sympathy was in order. The pilot had that exsanguinated Gaelic look; maybe a proverb from the old country? But no. He just bent forward to check if the vomitus had spotted the plane. Guy returned to the cabin, gargled vodka from the galley, spit, realized he still could still taste yesterday, and took a quick, bracing pull.

The pilot waited near the cabin door. “I’m to return Monday at sixteen hundred hours, sir?”

“Let’s take things one hour at a time.”

The pilot stifled a look and returned to the cockpit. Guy filled his hip flask and tried the stairs again, with good results. Someone had already loaded his luggage in one of the Jeeps. Two sun-kissed youths approached, both clad in teal jumpsuits—Averman Teal, which he’d paid Pantone an undisclosed sum to invent. The boy and girl radiated possibility.

“Mr. Stevens, Arthur Averman welcomes you to the Quorum,” they said in unison.

“Mr. Sarvananthan,” Guy corrected.

“Of course,” the girl said. “Allow us to escort you to your vehicle.”

A quiet frenzy of staff, security, and ground crew conferred in the hangar. There had been a miscommunication, it seemed, or possibly several. The bodyguards kept pointing to rows of cots in the corner. And near the Jeeps, a naked Bennett Benatti, waving hello and performing light stretches. Guy waved back and, for some reason, gave a thumbs-up. A trio of Averman’s staff waited on the luxury automotive heir, holding a white towel, a garment bag, and black espadrilles. Benatti finished his routine and dressed as Guy approached.

“I expected your lovely wife,” Benatti said.

“Indisposed. You’re stuck with me,” Guy replied.

Benatti left his shirt half-buttoned to display his tattoos of Old Masters facsimiles from the family collection. Probably the only heir at the Quorum, Guy thought. Most were incredibly conservative, loathe to donate a penny more than what was expedient taxwise. Whereas one-percenter transgression was Benatti’s raison d’être.

He opened a gold cigarette case. Guy motioned for a smoke.

“Not stuck with you,” Benatti said. “All due respect, your wife is super boring. Work, work, work. You I like. We will cavort? Maybe ‘solve global problems.’”

“I don’t want to think about any problems,” Guy said. He took a slow drag. Like licking the books of God’s library. “My goal is ruinous intake.”

The glowing youths directed them to a pedestal with a tray of amuse-bouche, explaining the clear liquid was Averman’s concoction for “post-flight refreshment with infusions to stimulate focus.” Guy passed; Benatti drank two.

Guy pointed his head toward the huddle of personnel. “More frantic than I expected.”

“Everyone’s arriving now,” Benatti said. “Arthur wanted to stagger us, but we come when we come, no?”

Benatti put on a white linen blazer, then slid a leather driving glove onto his right hand. Guy likened the affectation to men who got a single earring when they hit fifty.

He couldn’t recall the last time he’d driven. His license expired ages ago.

Jeeps arrived as others departed, carrying Quorumites one by one to the main compound. The drivers, much like the rest of the jumpsuited employees, seemed culled from the lacrosse fields of the Ivy League.

The girl gestured toward another pedestal, with markers and sheets of paper. She explained they were to write a one-word reply to the sentence Humanity is ____. Guy’s honest answer wouldn’t do. He went with afflicted; Benatti drew an exclamation point.

“Excellent,” she said. “Now Mr. Averman would like you to peel the sticker and wear your response on your chest. This ritual will—”

“Forgive me,” Benatti interrupted. “But we do not wear stickers.”

The girl retained her smile and directed them to their Jeeps. Benatti tossed his cigarette and Guy did the same.

“Let’s ride together,” Benatti said. “I’ll take front.”

Guy climbed in while the driver radioed to someone at the compound. The legroom was lacking, which would normally annoy him, but the nicotine bloom kept his spirits up.

They careened down a red-dirt path barely wider than the vehicle and flanked by squat palm trees. Robust jungle left only a column of sky; Guy saw the next wave of circling Quorumites, awaiting permission to land. How big was this gathering? A hundred? Two hundred?

Benatti was talking about his new girlfriend and angling his phone toward Guy. Intimate selfies from what’s-her-name, The Voice winner whose repertoire consisted solely of the last couplet of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Lifelong bachelors liked to share these updates with Guy, as if seeking approval.

When did he and V last fuck? A month ago? Now it would be their last fuck, as in never again. She might have warned him. One final romp, with their repertoire of gags and friendly edging. V disarmed utterly during sex (or he believed she did), her grunting chromatic and unselfconscious. He knew the spots: visit the clavicle, avoid the hip bone, hum down the perineum. She would tap his shoulder to advance to the next position and, almost without fail, orgasm with three large shudders. Their circuit lacked variety but never rose to the level of complaint.

Which didn’t mean much now. Their plateau was, in fact, a slow decline—easy to mistake when your schedules so rarely overlapped. With her work, travel, and general single-mindedness, what might be an evening’s conversation for others took them weeks.

“Do you smell that?” Benatti asked. “Lavender. That can’t be natural here.”

“Mosquito repellent,” the driver said. “Mr. Averman dusted half the island.”

Guy noticed stitched letters across the shoulders of Benatti’s jacket, also in white: “Mistakes Will Be Made.” The new slogan for a Rome-based periodical he’d recently purchased. Guy coveted the sartorial subtitle.

He moved to inspect himself in the driver’s rearview. Must be presentable, up to a point. Guy’s hair, teeth, and skin still advertised his access to the best products and methods. Nothing could be done about the eyes. The past twenty-four hours had accelerated the discoloration, as if he’d smeared camouflage around them.

The past twenty-four hours. Christ.

The Cucinelli polo couldn’t do anything about the paunch, but it artfully hid the love handles which continually flummoxed his personal trainer. They were something of a birthright: Sarvananthan men, though blessed with good hair and high metabolism, could neither figuratively or literally outrun the soft middle of middle age.

His body was aging faster now. It knew the money was gone and the jig was up. They said fame arrested one’s maturity at whatever age the person broke through; with sudden fortune it was one age’s that became cast in amber. He had looked fifty since the First Flush. No longer. He rolled his head on the swivel of his neck. Today he would age a lifetime.

“Are you ready to do the most good? Are you ready to finalize your legacy?”

Are you ready to do the most good? Are you ready to finalize your legacy?

Averman’s voice—from where? The questions repeated with the same inflection.

“Speakers, hidden in the brush,” Benatti said. “He does the same thing at his companies.”

The driver made a joke in Italian to Benatti, possibly about soccer, and they were soon debating something of grave importance in Turin. Guy concentrated on not sweating out the booze.

The Quorum was a fitting last fête—he’d met Averman at his first one. A fundraiser for the Central Park Conservancy. Back then Averman was like an avuncular mentor, despite their proximity in age. V had setup the Foundation and told Guy his job, more or less, was to solo navigate the circuit. Be a face. Charm, smile. Learn the unwritten rules.

Guy had thought the Curtis Institute’s black-ties would be adequate training for the gala crowd, but he was quickly at sea. How did one stand at these things? Was he just supposed to walk up to random people and introduce himself? Then a tanned and toned arm interlocked with his, an arm belonging to a magnificently coiffed Australian beaming with naked gusto. Guy later learned Averman fed this state through adrenaline-spiked family outings with a cadre of X Games athletes; he’d just completed two weeks in a self-made sloop up the Amazon. Averman had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure—common enough among Guy’s new cohort—reinforced by the man’s inability to simply be. The world was a sleeping bear he couldn’t resist poking.

Averman’s attitude immediately calmed Guy’s nerves. As did the zoological tour Averman launched into, pointing to a redhead in a white caftan gesticulating wildly inside a circle also in white caftans. “That’s Petra Bax, libertarian blowhard extraordinaire. Who knows why God gave her money. Like a baby with a handgun.” Though Averman hadn’t lived in Sydney for decades, his voice retained the wide accent of the antipodes. “And never go to one of her ‘summits.’ People quoting the Federalist Papers and talking about century rides on their trail bikes.” He nodded toward a lounge filled with people in aggressively experimental clothing. “The young heirs. They’re intellectually lazy, humorless, and indiscreet.” He winced; Guy silently hypothesized an extramarital misstep. “High statistical likelihood of squandering the family fortune and whiling away their dotage in the pool houses of distant cousins.”

Averman never picked up on Guy’s intellectual laziness, which surprised him. Guy thought it fairly apparent. He never saw the benefit of growing as a person and long suspected its alleged correlation with success—a skepticism reinforced by V’s rise and the First Flush. The only real shift in his beliefs was the inevitable one, that their largesse was preternatural, which happened to match everyone else’s outlook in their rarefied orbit. He acknowledged that sure, the people who would correct him on this matter were incentivized not to by his ability to disperse capital their way. Stipulated. But his conviction held: he had become the person he was always meant to be.


“Are you ready … ?” Another Averman recording Dopplered by.

Guy unconsciously checked his phone and startled at the waterfall of Jeremy’s messages. His brain would not allow itself to cohere the letters into words and the words into meaning. He pocketed the phone, then unpocketed it. Thought of V’s cold dispatch.

He should send a final text. Something curt and wounding. She’d expect some transliterated sobbing, a witching-hour accusation or two. His thumb absently tapped the screen while he considered the spectrum of replies. Every one of them expected and ineffectual. He checked the screen; his thumb had typed a string of Fs, Gs, Hs. He cleared them out. There was nothing to write.

He cocked his arm to throw the phone, then stopped and tapped out a message to the Foundation staff. Why not.

You should all find new jobs. By Monday, if possible. No time to explain.
Be good,
G. S.

He hit send and flicked the phone into the deep green. The driver noticed and didn’t react. What a professional. Auspicious for the days ahead. Alive, Guy felt alive.

They passed a faux-weathered sign welcoming them to ARTHUR’S FOLLY. To Guy’s knowledge the name had never stuck, even after Averman commissioned a Netflix travel series on the island. It sounded more befitting a pontoon than a Xanadu—you shouldn’t be cheeky with your private Eden. They slowed behind a line of idling vehicles. After ten seconds Benatti exited the Jeep.

“We must be around the corner,” he said. “Let them sort this out.”

Guy nodded at the driver and followed suit. Benatti’s instincts were shared by the other Quorumites: every Jeep was similarly empty, save for luggage and Styrofoam coolers. They walked the bend and the road widened to a circular drive with a blue-tiled fountain, chatting Quorumites, and their host, perhaps fifteen feet up in a shining scissor lift. Guy recognized about half the crowd. Mostly American, maybe a dozen women.

Averman bullhorned in their direction. “And now we have Mr. Guy Sarvananthan and Mr. Bennet Benatti! Welcome, gentlemen!” He wore the same outfit as his staff, and from this distance his head appeared monochromatic: the deep tan on his wide face matched the sun-bleached gold of his shoulder-length hair.

Il duce! Come stai?” Benatti exclaimed, saluting.

Averman made a sarcastic gesture somewhere between “hang loose” and “rock ’n’ roll.” He swung the megaphone toward employees creating a shaky tower of Globe-Trotters and Rimowas. “The luggage should already be in their assigned suites. This accumulation is displeasing. How we begin is how we proceed!”

Benatti and Guy walked to the fountain and away from the chaos. The other arrivals milled around a registration setup, backslapping and catching up; Guy spotted Roark. Just beyond, marble stairs led to a whitewashed high-ceilinged structure with teak trim. When the island appeared through the jet window, after Guy had awoken from a nap blissfully free from nightmare or spousal apparition, he catalogued the sandy beaches, dense jungle, tiered steppes, and the craggy black swoop of a dormant peak. It all conformed to the default mental image of a private island, razed and rewilded into a capstone idyll, albeit with fewer buildings than Guy would have thought. He’d also expected the busy design of Averman’s hotels, with their dessert-bar maximalism that, to Guy at least, tended to curdle into architectural temporizing. This was quiet. Austere. Averman wanted them clean and focused.

“Gentlemen, we begin.” Roark joined them at the fountain in a white linen three-piece.

They all nodded. Benatti distributed cigarettes.

Guy gestured at the crowd and found he was listing to the right. “Roark. What’s your over-under on Averman pulling this off?”

“If he does,” Roark said, “it’ll be the first major contribution from the Aussies since Hewitt took Wimbledon.” He turned serious. “I’m sorry about Victoria, Guy.”

Guy held his inhalation, pictured the smoke filling his respiratory tract. How did Roark know? What did he know? Ah—Averman. He must have updated their mutuals sotto voce.

“She … she would have wanted me to be here.”

“Not one to cry over spilled milk?” Roark asked.

“Or flipped kayaks.”

Roark whispered into Benatti’s ear. The Italian stared at Guy, then past him, then at him again. Averman boomed that the swordfish needed icing.

“She is there,” Benatti ventured, “and you are here. Hence the ruinous intake.”

“Hence,” Guy said. He remembered his flask and took a nip.

“Yes, well.” Benatti pursed his lips and exhaled, then motioned them to follow him. They skirted the scissor lift and the luggage tower—the same height, Guy noticed, but Argo-like, refreshed with new pieces—and walked onto the lawn between the main building and the jungle to the left. Low-slung residences in Santorini white extended down the plateau, where sinewy palms emphasized the blank sea beyond. Averman’s staff buzzed around and between the buildings like atoms. Or like electrons inside an atom. Whichever was scientifically accurate. Guy nipped again.

“Do you fellows notice anything about our accommodations?” Benatti asked.

Roark nodded. “Those two are new construction, built for the Quorum. And the suites are ground level so nobody can claim a better view.”

“Ever the egalitarian,” Guy said.

Benatti sniffed, as if Guy had passed gas. He pointed to the farthest residence. “Ah, but they only look the same. I have it on good authority those rooms come with new Totos—the ones with the, what do you call it, stool analysis.”

The staff cast dark glances at Benatti’s smoking; he didn’t notice or didn’t let on that he did. “And some rooms have authenticated Noguchi lamps. The others are repros.”

Roark attempted a hierarchy of the amenities—all agreed on the primacy of the deluxe shitter—and pointed to a staff dormitory camouflaged by thick flora. Guy felt an initial scrim of anxiety fall from his person. This was why he’d come: the lingua franca, the high judgment, and the presumption of never pleasing anyone else.

They returned to the circular drive, where about forty Quorumites were milling about. Averman was now delivering orders at an auctioneer’s pace, his usual bonhomie usurped by impatience. There were schedules to amend. Late arrivals to process. A flat tire “two clicks south.” Guy remembered the New Yorker profile where Averman celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday by paying the Navy SEALs to take him on practice exercises. (“Best broken arm yet.”)

Roark turned to Benatti. “Guy and I are coming from New York. You?”

“Punta del Este,” he replied. “I am celebrating the conclusion of the merger. In fact—”

Benatti darted to a crate of coolers on wheeled metal racks and began flipping open their lids. There had been a long-running family struggle at Editto S.p.A.—something about bringing Benatti’s empire in line with his cousins’ regional telecoms—and an acquisition by Daimler would guarantee sinecures for everyone’s eventual great-grandchildren.

As much as Benatti livened up a room, Guy never envied him. When you’re born with that much you’ve already used all the good luck you’ll ever receive. What’s more, short of curing blindness, you’d never best your ancestors’ achievements; Guy had seen this dawning realization lead to crack-ups in more than a few dynastic layabouts.

Benatti returned with a bottle of champagne and shot the cork toward Averman, whiffing by a yard, then dabbed a bit of foam behind his ears.

In bocca al lupo,” he said. “May those German pricks fund my Lake Como expansion.” He held up a wet index finger; Roark and Guy declined.

“No! Absolutely not!” Averman barked at an arriving group. “Zone of trust. This was made explicit.” He hit a button and the lift accordioned down.

Three people climbed out of a Jeep while a fourth passenger remained seated. Roark said they were the MIT kids, a trio of postdocs whose breakthroughs were on par with John Bogle’s invention of the index fund. They could be triplets: matching curly black hair, roughly the same height, olive skin, wearing white T-shirts and bands of smart bracelets.

One of them called up to Averman. “He’s integral to our algorithm testing. He’ll stay in our suite the entire time.”

Averman handed his megaphone to an employee and hurdled the crossbar. “Zone of trust,” he repeated. “I must insist.” He opened his arm to signal the other Quorumites and walked over. “Our accord is strong yet fragile, built from years of groundwork and the cooperation of the greatest minds in the world.”

While keeping his eyes on the MIT kids Averman reached into the car and reattached the passenger’s seat belt. “I don’t know your plus-one. Nor do I care to. Get rid of them.”

The passenger radiated discomfort while the MIT kids conferred. They nodded and the Jeep drove off.

Averman clapped his hands. “Okay! Sign in with Jessica and get situated. Drinks on the veranda in seventy-eight minutes.”

Benatti threw his cigarette in the fountain. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to talk to Arthur about one of those Totos.”

After he left, Roark lowered his voice. “What have you heard about a secret conclave?” He stared straight ahead, as if they were being watched.

“Secret how?” Guy asked.

“A Quorum within a Quorum. Where the real action is.”

The insecurity of these guys. “Well, Roark,” he said, with sugar in his voice, “I wouldn’t know anything about that. And if I did …”

“Joke all you want. Some of us are here on business.”

“Pitching your Governors Island project during the discussion on female genital mutilation?”

“Don’t be naïve,” he snapped. “Any man who leaves here without new partnerships should kill himself and spare his board the shame.”

“I have other priorities,” Guy said. “And your conclave idea is probably just a rumor.”

The crowd at check-in dissipated, so they walked to the table near the marble stairs. Averman’s executive assistant Jessica mapped directions to their suites (“Ooh, you both got good ones”) and reminded them of the cocktail reception. Roark waddled off to take a phone call.

Guy patted his flask and remembered his plans. “Jessica, I wonder where one may procure cocaine and amphetamines for the weekend.”

She tapped at her tablet, all crisp demeanor and general precision. “All set, Mr. Sarvananthan. It will be delivered to your suite by dinner.”

“Oh, and a quick shave. Send someone down before drinks. And a pack of Camel Reds.”

“I’m afraid the Quorum is smoke-free, Mr. Sarvananthan. But we’ll have a barber sent right away.”

“Thank you.”

He was directed to his residence. The suites ran down one side; on the other, a column of large picture windows. In his room he found a handwritten note next to his bags: Let’s save the fucking world!!!

Heavy fricatives came from the walls: grey noise, V’s favorite. They must have programmed it for her arrival. He found a control panel and muted it.

The suite was a soothing mix of tightly threaded rattan and off-white suede, with an overly curated bar. He’d need to send for more; man couldn’t survive on gin alone. Or die on gin alone. Next to the stoppered Watenshi and an ice bucket sat a green juice in a chilled highball glass. Delivered seconds before his arrival.

Man couldn’t survive on gin alone. Or die on gin alone.

He unpacked his polos and linen trousers, keeping two inches of space between the hangers, and lined the horse-bit loafers near the door. He tossed his sleeping mask on the bedside table, next to an issue of Celeste, the glossy magazine Averman published for his wife, about his wife. What started as a one-off anniversary present had grown into a puckish take on AmEx’s Centurion, with stockists in London high streets and collaborations with designers of cruelty-free resort wear.

He unzipped the padded ski bag and pulled out the sword. It was smart to bring it. A comfort blanket and, if things went truly awry, handy for parrying threats. Back in New York he’d thought about brandishing it at the Quorum—an eccentric’s open carry. Now he saw that wouldn’t do. Best to keep it a secret.

He stowed the dulled heirloom and assessed the bar cart, sampled the juice. Nutrients surfed his veins and brightened his being. Clarity encroached from the periphery. Oh, no. He poured a big boy gin, knocked it back, and checked the bathroom. The usual buttons on the toilet—rosewater bidet, heated seat—but no stool analysis. A subpar Toto.

The patio looked out to lawn and sea. Various staff ran by transporting lobster crates, pillows, croquet sets. They were uniformly young and athletic and about as racially diverse as Guy expected. Not a Desi in sight, but otherwise like a Ralph Lauren ad conscripted into hospitality.

It was too quiet. He searched for Brahms on the wall console. Op. 118 felt appropriate. He thought of an anecdote Roark had once told him, how MLK would call Mahalia Jackson at all hours and request his favorite hymns.

Glenn Gould’s version of op. 118. That would do.

Guy was a year out of Curtis when Gould died. Faculty and local alumni held an improvised memorial at someone’s house in Chestnut Hill. He immediately regretted attending. The eulogies were stilted, overreaching. A musical studies professor said if the Russians attacked, he’d take the maestro’s Brahms LP into the bunker. A soused oboist hinted Gould had faked his death. Another argued the pendulum would swing back: restraint would be in vogue again. Professors who’d caught a performance transmuted their past annoyances—Gould’s posture, Gould’s clothing, Gould’s humming—into the fundament of secular sainthood.

Guy hadn’t seen the next generational talent at the conservatory, but there were plenty of virtuosos. He could recognize it instantly, whatever the instrument or style, a recognition below consciousness which consciousness fought to articulate. That level of talent was a true gift, a richness that could be enjoyed dumbly—that is, enjoyed without any knowledge of its innovations or method, and with inexhaustible obsession. One of the other composers possessed this talent. A sickly boy from the Gold Coast whose name Guy could no longer recall; he did remember—could, in fact, not forget—the spinal purr of the boy’s chamber piece. Like discovering a new language one could not yet speak but intuitively felt reached heretofore impossible levels of articulation.

It took time for Guy to discern the limitations of his own talent. Composing short pieces for orchestra masked some of it. Here was the pinnacle of aesthetic experience: twenty-seven world-class musicians articulating a sound comprised of discrete, bounding fluidities. Nothing compared to the simultaneity of its breadth and depth. Whereas the song cycles he composed practically shouted their deficiencies. One could not hide oneself behind piano and voice.

Naturally he was fond of those years; naturally that was inevitable. Though he admitted to a level of naïveté, Guy was clear-eyed enough at the time to avoid self-delusion. By his last year at Curtis he understood that he’d peaked young and at modest elevation. He would never become one of the handful of composers with a career. In the years following graduation he stuck around and found contentment—or something just below it—in his rotation of piano students (respectful, college-bound tyros); an on-and-off affair with Gretchen Baumer, assistant concert master for the Philadelphia Orchestra; and, when he could afford it, pilgrimages to the festivals at Lucerne, Salzburg, and the rest.

A staff member ran by his patio, halted, waved at Guy, and walked toward him. She stopped again, rethought her approach, and dashed around the corner. Thirty seconds later he heard a knock.

“Mr., um, Sar-van-than?” she asked, and flipped through a portfolio stuffed with leather pouches.

“Sarvananthan. I’m him.”

“Here you are, sir.” She handed him a pouch and ran off.

He laid out the vials and glassines on the bed. Best to save the coke for nightfall. He swallowed two blue pills and made another drink. Turned the volume up and browsed the inlaid bookshelves. Patrick O’Brian adventures, photography books, World War II histories, Delvaulx’s Nautical Works, and, prominently faced-out, Averman’s bestsellers. His debut had been adapted into a Korean soap called Big Man Big Heart, according to the cover. Guy inspected the back copy. Apparently the charismatic titan of industry had first dictated the memoir’s outline into a voice recorder atop Everest. Did people really believe that? Guy reshelved it and came to the most recent publication, a glossy hardcover titled No Man Is an Island, But It’s Fun to Own One. V once said it had caused a minor dustup for its erasure of the triangular trade.

Her own business memoir was quickly negotiated and long delayed. They used to laugh about it: the woman who hated looking back, forced to synthesize her past. He once asked if they’d Ubered from their City Hall wedding to the Ace Hotel in NoMad—this was before the First Flush—or if they’d taken the subway. Her reply: “The past consumes too much bandwidth.”

V, invading his thoughts once more. A neuroscientist once told him memory wasn’t interested in its conception. When you recall a moment, you’re not getting the original, some preserved flash with all its particularities. It’s merely the most recent iteration, changing in the present through the act of recollection. Moreover, it’s all incredibly fallible, open to present feeling and influence. Better to think of an individual memory as an ever-evolving concept.

In the coming hours and days his brain would likely disinter long-buried memories, mulishly forcing himself to encounter himself. He was a man in free fall; it made sense. But if the memories were colored by his free fall, perhaps this absolved him from interrogating them for a point—or worse, a lesson. Treat them as random images lobbed by a desperate subconscious into … processing? Was that the goal? That meant change. Improvement. He had no intention of either.

Hell, there may even be some fun in it. If his brain insisted on fighting the disequilibrium to spotlight All That Has Come Before, or All That Might Have Been, perhaps his free fall might reconfigure the memories into new and unrecognizable shapes. Perhaps his disequilibrium might even befriend his brain; alcohol was a social lubricant, after all, as were the pharmacological sweeteners on his bed.

He slapped his face and washed his hands. Curled his toes into the jute rug. Paged through a coffee-table book about the island, where an architect extolled “nature as nature intended.” This apparently required a godlike swipe of the vegetation and the planting of seven cypresses outside Averman’s quarters, symbolizing his chief revenue streams.

A foldout map confirmed Guy’s impression from the jet. The island resembled a puzzle piece, with circular bays and rounded peninsulas. The grassy steppe of his residence also contained the sprawling central hub, athletic facilities, three outdoor pools, and a bocce court. Other delights included gardens and greenhouses; a fruit tree with varieties of pear, apple, orange, peach, banana, and kumquats grafted into an efficient cornucopia; and all that jungle, with paths and cairns for forest bathers. Foxglove too. Even a man-made ecosystem needed its poisons.

The north sported a novel bit of geographical cosmetology. A monolithic and imported sliver of limestone leaned against the grey cliff face, having been sheared off the Olana estate in upstate New York. A sidebar noted its sentimental value: the site of Averman’s proposal to Celeste, back when they were young and, after the implosion of his first hotel development, briefly destitute.

Another knock on the door, and soon Guy was recumbent on the patio under a teal apron while a staff member scrutinized his cheeks and neck.

“Full shave, sir?”

“No, just this hanger on, above the lip.” Guy pointed with his drink and sploshed some gin onto his face.

The unflappable barber toweled him off. “Very good.”

The barber still went through the motions, laying out his razors and creams. He spritzed Guy’s face and produced a hot towel from a small Styrofoam box. Head back, with a partial view of the sky, Guy took in the familiar scent of the barber’s deodorant. What was it? Something with anise—Old Spice. His father’s aspirational purchase from the local Target during the three-day stretch between arrival in the United States and a fatal heart attack, which occurred mid-interview for a position in the catalog department of Sears & Roebuck. It was sudden but not unexpected, a common morbidity among Sarvananthans, and the cruelty of its timing, in Guy’s mind, was eventually laundered through an emergent Midwesterner’s optimism: at least his father didn’t die the week before. No, he’d collapsed on America’s doorstep, a grand achievement after years of maddening bureaucracy, dead-end calls to various embassies, rejected bribes, unexplained deferrals … and then that catalyzing stroke of luck, arriving not by the connections of a sterling military career, but through his wife.

Guy’s mother, who only ever wanted to practice law, was forbidden to do so by her father, who demanded she choose between teaching and nursing. She went for the former, and this skillset finally unlocked America, whose mid-1970s shortage of preschool and kindergarten teachers partially informed a larger immigration quota of subcontinentals. She co-ran a robust Montessori in St. Louis Park, the middle-class Jewish enclave outside Minneapolis, and they lived in nearby Richfield. If the location was undesirable—his father balked at the stories of tundra conditions—she reminded him their other option was Toronto, farther north.

Guy and his mother took to wearing his father’s deodorant in memoriam and out of pragmatism. When it ran out they silently agreed to keep the red tube in its rightful place on the bottom shelf of the medicine cabinet.

His mother mostly referenced the death in monetary terms—the high cost of funerary services in this alleged land of opportunity—and in the redistribution of household duties. Guy later understood she grieved privately, taking long drives while carpeting the driver’s-side floor mat with soaked Kleenexes, or with a tight group of aunties who ran a catering business out of one of their kitchens, cooking banana-leaf-wrapped lamprais for the birthdays and graduations of the Twin Cities’ Sri Lankan population. His mother specialized in love cakes and would refill a water glass with Diet Coke as she worked and complained about the “one step forward two steps back” shuffle of her new life.

When he pressed the issue one night over Hamburger Helper, she replied his father had simply used his lifetime allotment of heartbeats—fifty-eight years’ worth—as she would too someday, and if they were going to thrive in America they shouldn’t waste one minute crying over misfortune. His father was in heaven, boring God with talk of the untapped potential of the national cricket team, and that—she enunciated decisively, with a mouth full of ground beef—was that.

Guy found his school work comically easy compared to the Colombo regimen—they didn’t even enforce corporal punishment! But he had difficulty making friends, and the Minnesota winter conspired against his social life. Take the simple act of entering school. The second he crossed the threshold his glasses fogged up, blinding him no matter whether he wiped them clean, removed them, or waited for the condensation to dissipate. Thus he was cursed to hesitate inside every entrance, making pinched expressions and hoping nobody was nodding hello or—however improbably—motioning for a high-five.

Then there was his general inability to walk on the icy sidewalks, a skill his fellow students seemed to perfect at birth, like Inuit children flensing seal meat. (He believed Eskimos lived in northern Minnesota for an embarrassingly long time.) He was prone to overcorrecting, bending forward at the waist and throwing his center of gravity about, a shameful ballet that both attracted and repelled attention. Finally, there were the painful effects of winter on his cock. This was most acute whenever he came in from the cold and had to urinate. Something about the outdoors stimulated his bladder, and he would fumble with numb fingers through layers of clothing, praying he wouldn’t piss his pants, unbuttoning the fly of his Lee’s and releasing the torrent with a still-frozen, shrunken cock that stung sharply until it accustomed to room temp. The generalized effects of the routine surely contributed to his difficulty losing his virginity to one of the comely Scandinavian or Teutonic girls.

Though if he were honest, the cold cock wasn’t nearly so detrimental as his reputation of an asocial weirdo, established by a rather public dropping of his water glass in the lunch line—he had it in his hand, wondered what it would be like to drop it, and simply dropped it. Everyone disregarded this as accidental, until he repeated the action three more times. A counselor recommended “healthy outlets” for his confusion and anger but wouldn’t give specifics. He heard tales of classmates’ acts of rebellion: stealing street signs, doing whatever the burners did behind the Southtown Mall. Guy never received an invitation.

Which isn’t to say it was a lonely adolescence. The Sarvananthans were welcomed by their neighbors, mostly 3M retirees with extreme fealty to the sportscasters of WCCO— mentions of KFAN were met with silence. He spent many nights at the Knutsons, playing their modest collection of sheet music on a workaday upright. The Germans, of course, but also Copland and Gershwin. He credited Shelly Knutson for alerting him to his talents. Not enough musicianship for conservatory—she was realistic, for which he was grateful—but the improvisations showed promise. Perhaps composition? This comported nicely with young Guy’s self-image as a budding anti-capitalist, born of misplaced rage at Sears & Roebuck. Much later he would learn of the bankruptcy of the original “everything store” and feel intense bodily elation without understanding quite why, time being what it was—what it is—and really, who among us is that in touch with their childhood selves?

Though “self” was imprecise. From what baseline might he measure his changing self against? He perverted himself through memory, and he couldn’t stand outside himself to glean the knowledge of this perversion—or at least, glean perspective on the size of the perversion. There was no record to consult. He’d never been a diarist, and he didn’t have any lifelong friends.

All the better. He was freed from the obligation of consistence, absolved for all near-term hypocrisy and selfishness. To cherry-pick oneself: what bliss!

The barber applied a cold towel to his face and asked about the nose hair. Would he like a touch-up? Guy declined. Let them be wild.

He thanked the barber, sat up, and managed the slight dizziness. A white leviathan appeared in the water. He asked the barber if he was seeing what he was seeing.

The barber rolled up his equipment. “We’re not allowed to comment on it, sir.”

The object resolved into a passing megayacht with ungainly mods pimpling its decks. A glass dome covered the stern, with trees inside and what looked like sand dunes. A small figure arced up one on an ATV, held in midair, and disappeared down the backside.

Petra Bax. Crashing the Quorum.

Guy stood and fell backward, saved from knocking his head on the concrete by the barber’s quick reflexes. Excellent: the pills had kicked in.

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