From the outset, The Dismal Science seems to be about just that: economics. But this fiercely intelligent second novel from Peter Mountford—whose first, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, charted similar territory—is far less interested in capitalism and wealth, than it is in the economy of human relationships—the ones we have with each other and the ones we maintain with ourselves. Though the book begins within the confines of the World Bank, dropping us into the life of Italian-born senior economist Vincenzo D’Orsi, it quickly pivots to reveal the splintering beams that are barely holding its protagonist aloft. Despite achieving the kind of professional success and luxurious lifestyle many of us crave, the middle-aged Vincenzo finds himself in crisis, thrown into an intellectual, moral and emotional tailspin as he attempts to navigate ethical frustrations at work, an increasingly volatile relationship with his only daughter, and his own stubbornness. What results is an alternately funny and tragic trajectory, marked by Vincenzo’s encounters with a variety of characters that pepper his life, including a Washington Post reporter, a Yale-bred activist and a menacing (but polite) CIA operative.
While The Dismal Science began with an interest in the World Bank—Mountford’s father was an economist and Mountford himself dabbled in the field before turning to writing full-time—it also sprang from the writer’s desire to live through a risk-taker. “I wanted the vicarious experience of saying, ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna shoot from the hip, and make decisions that way,’ ” he says. To wit, Vincenzo makes a series of choices that speak more to existentialism than your average portrait of a middle-aged man in the throes of panic.
“It’s interesting to have a character who, in a lot of ways, would have everything that he would want, and then you have to build a real vacuum within him that is palpable, so that he will have real motivation to make decisions that will animate the plot,” Mountford notes.
Vincenzo’s intellectualism guides the novel, and his avid reading habits and love of chess lend a certain panache, if not riskiness, to his decision-making. Though Mountford was keenly aware of the myriad traps of using chess as a literary metaphor, he also saw it as an apt way to amplify the cogs and wheels of Vincenzo’s psyche: “You have to, at times, make what appears to be a crazy decision in order to have a good outcome,” he says. “So you’d sacrifice an incredibly important piece, and as a result, you gain something ineffable in the flow of the game, and then that results in your winning.” But, Mountford adds, “He’s also aware that life is not, at all, a game of chess. That there is no winning or losing in life; you just continue until life stops, and then you’re dead.”
The Dismal Science is also a commentary on one’s ability to see exactly where he or she sits on the spectrum of the haves and have-nots. No stranger to straddling this line, Mountford spent a few years as a child living in Sri Lanka, at a time when civil war had just broken out, and subsequently moved to an affluent area of Washington, DC, though his family was very much middle-class. While his DC classmates were being primped for senatorial seats, Mountford worked as a waiter and furniture salesman in high-class venues, and even recounts times when he’d hang out with friends at fancy restaurants and blow his entire week’s allowance on a bowl of soup.
“I’ve always been on the outside looking in through this window, at this beautiful spread of luxury,” Mountford says, “or I’ve been on the inside within luxury, and there’s children who are starving, and they’re on the outside peering in while I’m eating my delicious food. And I’ve always felt extremely aware of myself on this grid of capitalism.”
So aware, in fact, that despite being “a punk rocker and an amateur criminal” in high school, Mountford opted for an undergraduate degree in international relations. From there, he was hired as “the token liberal” at a think tank, and went on to write about economics and policy in Ecuador. But something felt amiss, and Mountford, who had been writing fiction since childhood, switched gears and embarked on a years-long journey to put stories first. “I would read anything that seemed like it had been recently lauded, and I read huge amounts of all this stuff, and I wrote and wrote and wrote, but it was a slow apprenticeship,” he says. “It took maybe six years of dramatic failure. I was writing every day, four hours a day, and everything I wrote ended up in the trash. It was terrible. I wrote two novels, maybe 25 short stories, collected a lot of rejections.”
Now that he’s found his voice, the important thing, Mountford notes, is to enjoy the process, despite its ups and downs. “It was fun to write, and if it’s not fun to write, it’s going to be something that’s unfortunately not fun to read,” he says. “That was something I figured out at some point: You have to have fun, even if it’s difficult.”