Lawyer, Trader and Ad Man Hard at Work in Three Novels

Violence, Nudity, Adult Content , by Vince Passaro. Simon and Schuster, 304 pages, $24.

All I Could Get , by Scott Lasser. Alfred A. Knopf, 247 pages, $24.

Palladio , by Jonathan Dee. Doubleday, 386 pages, $24.95.

In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread . Adam’s curse is the weary refrain of our recorded history, the modern, bumper-sticker version being “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go.” And what about the future? In 1930, John Maynard Keynes declared it possible that within 100 years the “economic problem” would be solved and a new era of abundance would reveal a new human dilemma: “[F]or the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem–how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

So by 2030, each of us could be issued a golden parachute. Or maybe not. In the meantime, here are three new novels about men working hard in quintessentially New York professions. Two of these are first novels, Vince Passaro’s Violence, Nudity, Adult Content , which tracks a few months in the life of a young lawyer on the verge of making partner, and Scott Lasser’s forthcoming All I Could Get , which does the same for a rising Wall Street trader. In Palladio , Jonathan Dee’s fourth novel, a Madison Avenue career gets the treatment, though advertising in this story takes a highly unorthodox turn.

In each of these books, work–not poverty, not want–becomes the enemy, a destructive force that threatens grievous harm, even death (I counted two work-related heart attacks, an attempted kidnapping and an incineration). In each book, relationships flounder, and the proximate cause is work. Toil is famously tough on the home life, and it rots your moral fiber, too. From reading these novels, you could easily get the impression that idle hands are the only ones safe from the devil. Work is revealed as a sanction for aggression and greed, a sinister patriarchal conspiracy to let boys be boys and yet feel proud of it. The moral of these stories is that work corrupts. Virtue consists in learning how to resist ambition and embrace leisure so that one may live, as Keynes would put it, “wisely and agreeably and well.”

Vince Passaro’s smart young lawyer, Will Riordan, senses that there’s something wrong with what he does: His professional cleverness is not serving truth or beauty. He’s mainly working on two cases, defending a sinister rich man accused of killing his wife, and suing for negligence the management company of an East Side high-rise where a tenant, a young black woman, was viciously raped in the course of a robbery. In neither case can Will’s impressive legal maneuvers produce a morally just result. (Women certainly won’t be made safer from male predation.) Though our smart young lawyer wins , the benefit accrues to his Wall Street firm. The point of Will’s labor is not justice but money and professional advancement. As his wife Ellie tells him: “Every time your income goes up, a little more of your conscience has to die.”

That’s one of Will’s problems (he’s burdened with a romantic soul), but there’s worse: His work leaves him little time for his wife and two tiny tots, and the brutality of his cases (and of his lousy childhood) cuts him off from tender domestic joys. Ellie says he comes back from the office at night “with a dead face and dead eyes,” and that his “silence and alienation and barely contained anger fill up the room and choke everything in it.” Home, sweet home.

The problem for the reader is that the strongest parts of Mr. Passaro’s book are about lawyering. When Will’s on the job, the novel hums with extra energy. Ellie wants him home (and attentive), but the reader wants him back at the office, where his secretary, after she’s typed up a document, says, “I’m shooting it to the laser,” and where the promise of partnership eternally dangles: “bribes and extortions hang in the air flaccid as yesterday’s balloons.”

Violence, Nudity, Adult Content is clever, rich and ambitious, very New York, very indebted to Don DeLillo. O.K., it’s a little artsy, what with the allusions–some attributed, some just floated, gifts for future grad students–to Whitman, to T.S. Eliot, to Stephen Crane. But it’s also a satisfying way to spend your leisure time, this business of discovering a sophisticated and energetic new author.

Scott Lasser is by comparison a literary naif. Unfortunately, though he’s good at giving the feel of the trading floor (“it smells as if an electric oven has been turned on that hasn’t been used in years”), the buying and selling of Treasury bills is even less intrinsically interesting than filing motions. The best scenes in All I Could Get record the tense jockeying of our overworked narrator, Barry Schwartz, and his fellow traders, all of whom are gro-tesques, misshapen by their allegiance to the hard-ass trader ethos. At home, again, there’s the wife and the two tiny tots–but in this case the goody-good wife’s a cipher (she tells Barry, “I know that deep inside you, somewhere, is that person I fell in love with”). It’s not entirely clear what Barry is missing by staying at work, by allowing himself to drift into the inevitable affair.

The sentimental trickle in Mr. Passaro’s novel is more like a torrent in Mr. Lasser’s. The epiphany that eventually sends Barry back to the bosom of his family comes from watching a comet and “contemplating … our insignificance in the comings and goings of the universe.” Now there’s a good reason for knocking off early.

But what if your work is “creative”–a kind of remunerative play–which is how many people would describe the business of dreaming up advertising campaigns? John Wheelwright, the antihero and part-time (unreliable) narrator of Jonathan Dee’s Palladio , has a good job ($75K) with an established ad agency. We learn early on that “John took his work seriously.” It sounds like the perfect job: “[I]n his experience, he and [his work partner] were hired to do exactly as they pleased.” Mr. Dee makes the business of advertising interesting and even exciting; the scenes of John at work are among the finest in the novel. John, however, is dissatisfied with his career: “He felt … like an instrument … of what seemed … like a vast and powerful blankness, an opacity.” So he quits his job, abandons the lovely lawyer girlfriend he lives with and signs on with Malcolm Osbourne, a mysterious ad man who’s setting up–in an ante-bellum mansion in Charlottesville, Va.–a venture called Palladio. Osbourne plans to create advertising “unlike anything the world has ever seen.” In fact, soon enough, after the buzz has built up in a gratifying manner, he’s calling the work done at Palladio art . John calls him a “facilitator” who “provides the link between great artists”–his employees–”and the means for disseminating great art”–that is, the medium of advertising.

Jonathan Dee is intelligent and talented and has lots to say about advertising, art and commerce. He also has lots to say about relationships between men and women: A second strand of the plot introduces Molly Howe, whom John once loved and lost (an enigmatic woman, Molly is without profession or fixed occupation; she’s a woman with no attachment to work). Actually, Mr. Dee wants to say more than his story can bear–his novel is talky and didactic and not quite digested. But it’s consistently interesting, especially about the kinds of work people do and why they do it.

Presented with the opportunity to make art at Palladio, John Wheelwright produces nothing (“he couldn’t seem to dredge up anything on that level”). Instead he becomes Osbourne’s “adjutant,” his “fixer.” He throws himself at this task, leaves himself no room for a life outside work: He lives at the mansion, slips into a low-key romance with a colleague. Palladio prospers and John becomes, as someone bluntly remarks, “the perfect toady”–or as someone equally blunt puts it, a “pathetic lackey.” His dedication to his job begins to warp him (John narrates this portion of the novel, and his account is very cleverly skewed). Osbourne is revealed as something of a monster; ditto John. Their compound monstrosity, combined with the single-mindedness of a Palladio artist who “lived in his work, [whose] life did not seem quite real to him outside of it,” adds up to a spectacular catastrophe.

Americans are notorious for working hard–and New York is the capital city of full-throttle ambition. But though many a hymn has been sung in praise of the work ethic (Walt Whitman, when he wasn’t loafing, cataloged the beauty of every kind of labor), our national literature consistently ignores or denigrates the daily grind (a friend has suggested that Moby-Dick is really a novel about whale-work and that Ahab is just a workaholic with a weird job). There’s something schizophrenic about anti-toil tirades, especially coming from professional authors who sweat over each and every word. Great writers know that fine things come only from determined, even heroic effort–though they do their best not to let the effort show.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.