Over the few days in March I spent reading Jacob Wren’s new novel, the so-called “one per cent” were in the headlines a lot: billionaire blowhard Donald Trump had all but sewn up the Republican nomination in the U.S. presidential election; Canada’s own Conrad Black was auctioning off his $21.8-million Toronto home; and the Canada Revenue Agency was caught offering amnesty to high-net-worth clients of KPMG exposed in an offshore tax avoidance scheme.
Wren’s novel struck me as apropos of all this, as it tells of an unnamed and failed pianist reduced to washing dishes for a living, who plots to murder a similarly unnamed billionaire after reading a shoplifted copy of the man’s bombastic autobiography. The dishwasher’s choice of weapon, perhaps fittingly, is a strand of piano wire he keeps hidden in his pocket at all times. At first, the dishwasher tries to secure a job with one of the three private security companies that provide bodyguards to the billionaire. When that fails, he teams up with a disgruntled confidante of his target, an “ivy league operator” named Emmett, who lands the dishwasher a white-collar job in the billionaire’s company.
The assassination attempt goes terribly awry, but it does send both the dishwasher and the billionaire on new life trajectories. The dishwasher flees to join a camp of ragtag picketers and protesters; the billionaire, meanwhile, has his confidence shaken, perhaps for the first time.
On one level, Rich and Poor is a straightforward revenge fantasy that harks back to Robert De Niro’s character in Taxi Driver. Wren’s writing is lively as he brings his two characters together, but what’s most interesting is that the book’s narration alternates between the dishwasher and the billionaire. What’s more, Wren writes their voices in a similar register, to the point where it would often take a few sentences before I could tell when the switch happened. The statement this makes is clear: the dishwasher and the billionaire – the poor and the rich – have more in common than either individual might care to acknowledge.
The weakness in this, however, is that Wren doesn’t quite nail the inner motivations of his billionaire. The character admits, right off the bat, that the actions of his company are evil and destructive. But if you spend any time talking to or writing about the rich, you know this is not how they interpret their own behaviour. They speak in terms of the great ends their businesses achieve: job creation, wealth creation, society-improving innovations, grandiose monuments, and the like. That Wren did not imbue his billionaire with this world view is a missed opportunity.
Still, Rich and Poor is a timely and well-considered story. There are plenty of surprising moments (I especially loved the fact that the billionaire inadvertently founds a poetry prize) as well as real insights into issues of wealth inequality that so often dominate the headlines.