A family — and a country — survive financial crisis

By Walt Braun

Gregg Easterbook packs a lot into this comparatively short novel.

On one level, it’s the story of a family that lives the good life, courtesy of the financial industry, is subsequently ruined during America’s financial crisis, cries, copes, grows wiser and survives, mostly.

On another level it’s a tale of an America that has gone soft, has gotten greedy and, whether rich or poor, has a deep sense of entitlement

Tom and Margo Helot have it about as good as a young family could expect; their two daughters are in a top private school preparing for a top private college, Tom is a partner in a growing investment company and their home is filled with the latest — and priciest — creature comforts.

Rare is the day something new isn’t delivered; so frequent are deliveries that vans have actually collided in their driveway.

Tom is a good man who has earned his success.

Having held menial jobs when he was younger, he tips generously and saves something for the down and out.

He’s blind, however, to the fact that his partner has bankrupted their company and double-crossed investors – and Tom – while enriching himself just before the investigations are to begin.

Tom realizes too late why his partner talked him out of selling a big chunk of the shares he took in lieu of pay.

In no time, the Helots give up their beautiful house, their expensive furniture, their girls’ school, Margo’s Lexus and many of their friends.

They move into a house that embarrasses Margo a little.

Then, unable to afford that, they end up in an apartment complex filled with neighbors who don’t really want to be neighborly.

Tom can’t find a job in his field, and learns that lots of others like him also are looking for work while more than a few clever individuals in his field are hauling in bonuses large enough to subsidize housing for thousands of familes like Tom’s.

He works lots of jobs, most of them part-time or short-term and even finds himself applying for work at McDonald’s.

Margo, who finds work as a waitress, realizes how misguided their priorities were and how petty the gripes of the wealthy are compared to the desperate straits of millions of Americans.

Among memorable scenes in the book is one describing Margo’s experiences as a waitress providing superb – and exhausting – service to a large party.

Its members run up a $300 lunch tab, complain about everything, demand separate checks and leave a collective tip of $2.68.

In another segment, Tom becomes a “facilitator” at the city’s exhibition center.

Unfortunately, no authority comes with the title, which involves working as a liaison between union members who make impossible demands before setting up exhibits, exhibitors who make impossible demands on the arena and public workers too busy counting the days to retirement to make a decision.

Easterbrook, who’s written a number of books and essays, is a distinguished fellow of the Fulbright Foundation and a visiting fellow of the Heritage Foundation.

As a student of American society, he’s also a gifted writer who deploys crisp prose and clever dialogue to tell his tale of the financial crisis, its winner and its losers.

“The Leading Indicators” is an entertaining, enlightening read.

Walt Braun is The Mercury’s editorial editor and a Manhattan resident.

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