Eat What You Kill (St. Martin’s Press) is author Ted Scofield’s debut, a thriller about Wall Street greed and the extremes to which some hustlers, such as protagonist Evan Stoess (rhymes with “mess”), will go for money, money, and money. The book has gotten laudatory reviews online hailing it as a financially fueled page turner—but the book may prove at times a bit much for those not into the machinations, lingo and arcana of hedge funds and the shorting of stocks for fame and fortune. The book’s ending may prove disappointing or unbelievable, if not unethical. Still, the narrative compels on a level reminiscent of what Joseph Conrad, in his Heart of Darkness, called “the fascination of the abomination.” If the protagonist is the guy you’re rooting for, it’s because other bad guys are worse, into excessive drug and alcohol use and offensive displays of wealth. Gordon Gekko wannabes—take note.
Scofield, who has a house in Sagaponack, writes what he knows. A native of Louisville, with a Vanderbilt BA, MBA and JD, he started out as a corporate and securities attorney, and is now the COO and general counsel of a consumer products company. Scofield never makes it clear, however, exactly what the title phrase “eat what you kill” means as applied to finance. Wikipedia suggests it can refer to an ancient myth about gaining power from a powerful animal you kill, thus taking on its nature. Or it might refer to the ultimate triumph over a worthy opponent in competitions between corporations that sometimes leads to “mergers where the more successful company acquires and absorbs the less successful competitor.” Other possible meanings include “leaving no trace” when you commit a bad act. Evan Stoess is into all of the above.
But Scofield tries to elicit understanding of, if not sympathy for, Evan. Unlike many privileged financial killers on Wall Street, Evan comes from trailer park trash, growing up with an abusive stepfather and enduring bullying at the prestigious prep school he attends (thanks to a mysterious stranger’s bequest). He’s mocked and beaten in school because it’s clear he doesn’t belong. He determines to get back, get his, get ahead, kill and eat what he kills. Not surprisingly, Ayn Rand provides an epigraph: “Americans were the first to understand that wealth has to be created. The words ‘to make money’ hold the essence of human morality.” Chapter one also contains a Rand quotation, to which Evan, of course, subscribes. “Men who apologize for being rich will not remain rich for long.” Evan neatly gets himself into his first position at an eat-what-you-kill firm through blackmail, and he performs brilliantly at the job, only to suffer a reversal when the CEO of a pharmaceutical suddenly dies. Enter hard times and a flashback to Evan’s hardscrabble childhood. Another hungry company, however, picks him up and this time Evan determines he will not lose—even if he has to kill. And kill he does—without remorse, regret or emotion. Camus’s The Stranger provides other references, and Gore Vidal at his nastiest also comes in for an appreciative nod: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”
The book begins with Evan lurking near 940 Fifth Avenue, a place he goes as a sort of ritual. There, he is secretly keeping track of a beautiful middle-aged couple, a couple that for him represents success, aristocracy, ease. In the summer he observes that the family goes to the Hamptons. Naturally, Nick & Toni’s is the place where Evan gets to enjoy fist-bumping celeb status. (Dan’s Papers gets a shout out as Evan’s source of information about where to go to mingle with the rich and famous.) Though Scofield’s reference to high-end culinary and sartorial details lends authenticity to the narrative, these passages tend to take on a life of their own, with references to music, videos, television shows and technology mostly familiar to twenty- and thirty-somethings on the make and move. Let it be said, however, that in spite of my reservations, including about the author’s too-obvious reliance on italics for inner thoughts, Scofield has already sold the film rights for Eat What You Kill, has numerous admirers and may well be, as they say in the old saw, laughing all the way to the bank.