GULAG 401K by Richard A.  Marin


Tales of a Modern Prisoner
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A memoir chronicles the life of a financial professional who studiously avoids retirement.

Marin (Mater Gladiatrix, 2017, etc.) characterizes retirement and, more specifically, the 401(k) plan as a “gulag,” suggesting the notion of slavishly spending a life toiling away only to be metaphorically incarcerated in one’s later years. “Retirement,” writes the author, “starts as a dream in the naïveté of youth, becomes a tantalizing and confusingly flirtatious goal in mid-career, and turns into a dreaded outcome in advancing age.” It is therefore not surprising that Marin neither accepts nor embraces the notion of retirement; rather, he has a knack for continually reinventing a financial career, even late in life, that takes more turns than a switchback road. Getting to the end of that road is half the fun; his entertaining book is really a series of career-related vignettes that occur over many years. Each chapter is a priceless little nugget composed of highly competent narration and populated with memorable characters, such as the morally questionable “Bogey Schu” and the unrepentant womanizer “Gross Bob.” Perhaps most celebrated is Herman, the unassuming subway rider befriended by Marin who turns out to be nothing less than a shrewd investor with a $9 million portfolio. It is revealed later in the book that Herman becomes the leading character in a tale the author submits to HBO for what is to become a filmed suite of New York “subway stories.”

Marin’s recollections are not all filled with levity. Central to his tale is an episode notoriously familiar to most readers: the author was the chairman and CEO of ill-fated Bear Stearns Asset Management during the 2007-2008 financial meltdown. Marin painfully but eloquently recounts the humiliating experience he lived through (barely, as he was forced to resign), offering a rare insider’s view from the eye of the storm. Still, he has the ability to maintain a sense of perspective: “I prided myself on never having been sued, never having been named in a lawsuit nor ever having initiated a lawsuit. To be a veteran banker and never sue or be sued is quite unique.” As the author charts his lifelong course, he reports on various roles as financial executive, venture capitalist, professor, and, ultimately, CEO of the New York Wheel, the giant observation wheel planned for Staten Island for which Marin secured the seed capital. (A court battle has delayed the project’s completion.) The author writes with a storyteller’s eye; his tales are rich in detail, his observations are noteworthy, and his prose is often filled with wry humor. The pictures he paints of colorful personalities are endlessly appealing. There is an occasional wistfulness to Marin’s quirky, engaging memoir, as if he knows he is in the twilight of his career but cannot quite accept it. Even as he approaches his personal retirement gulag, though, the author manages to seek and find fulfillment: “I can think of nothing as meaningful as emptying oneself into a worthwhile effort.”

An insightful, often funny account of a man who follows a fiscally rewarding path but knows that life’s meaning involves more than money.

Page count: 303pp
Publisher: Lulu
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2018


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