THE AMATEURS by Marcus Sakey

Book Quote:

“Do you remember?” Mitch said staring out the darkened window, “how we used to talk about the rich guys, the CEOs and politicians? How we used to hate them for acting in their own interests instead of for the good of everyone else

“We went into this thinking we were going to stick it to guys like that. Like Johnny. People who broke the rules for their own good. And now here we are. Thinking the same way.”

Book Review:

Review by Devon Shepherd  AUG 6, 2011)

The titular novices of Marcus Sakey’s recent novel, The Amateurs, are four friends, three men and one woman, who band together against the frigidity of Chicago’s winters and the loneliness of urban life to form the Thursday Night Drinking Club. But amateur drinkers these four are not – experts in the art of throwing back martinis, the first thing any of these four do in a time of crisis is reach for a bottle of vodka. If only the same could be said for their foray into the criminal underworld.

Rounding thirty, they are poster children for urban ennui: Alex is a former law-student whose sideline as a bartender turned full-time ten years ago when his now-ex wife gave birth to their daughter, Cassie; Ian, a trader with a coke problem, flew too high, too fast with a phenomenal trade in undervalued Hudson-Pollam Biolabs stock, only to face increasing loss and derision as he stalks the financial markets, looking for another off-the-radar meteor to ride back to his seat among the stars; Mitch is a bookish hotel doorman who carries a torch for Jenn, the only female member of their drinking crew, but lacks the spine to do anything about it; Jenn is a travel agent who dreams of travelling herself but can’t seem to commit to making it happen, much like she can’t seem to commit to any of the men she dates, content to coast along on what is left of her good looks. If the group reads like a clichéd list of youngish urbanites, well that is largely because it is. But in lieu of nuanced characters, Mr. Sakey presents us with a moral dilemma.

Imagine you could steal a substantial sum of money, not enough to make you rich, but enough to alleviate some of your immediate problems and broaden your future horizons, would you do it? What if I promised you wouldn’t get caught? Or what if that money belonged to people you knew were overdue for some karmic comeuppance, people like professional criminals?

That is the question the Thursday Night Drinking Crew faces when Alex’s no-good boss, Johnny Love, bullies him into posing as muscle for an after-hours deal. The money for the deal is locked away in a safe, but Alex knows the combination. Resentful of Johnny Love for coercing his participation, Alex tells the crew about the deal. With their last game of “What would you do if . . .. you had half-a-million dollars?” (called “Ready-go” here) still fresh in their minds, the others are primed and ready to fantasize about travelling the world or day trading themselves to a fortune, but the stakes for Alex are much higher.

Cassie’s step-father has received a promotion that requires moving the family to Phoenix. Alex’s ex-wife informs him that, while she has no intention of keeping his daughter from him, due to a series of late or missed child support payments, he doesn’t have a legal say in the matter. Figuring (bizarrely) that making up the late payments will give him the legal right to stop the move, Alex pushes his friends, first Jenn, who he’s casually sleeping with, then Ian, who has developed a gambling problem (and the concomitant debts) to help him steal the money. Following Alex’s lead, the group uses Mitch’s crush on Jenn to coax him out of his reluctance.

Because why should they be shut out when everyone else has their hands in the cookie jar? Bear Stearns is in the midst of collapsing as the sub-prime mortgage crisis guts the economy, leaving many on Wall Street millions, if not billions, of dollars richer. Regular people like them are being stolen from everyday. Why shouldn’t they step up and start taking want they want too?

Ian brings up a problem that has become a classic in both game theory and moral philosophy, The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Although it can take many forms, the dilemma is usually presented in the form of two people getting arrested for a crime. The police know they are guilty, but don’t have enough evidence to press charges. The criminals are separated and told that if they rat out their partner they will go free, but their partner will get 10 years. If both criminals stay silent, they will each get charged with a lesser crime that carries a penalty of, say, 6 months in jail. If both confess, they will split the time, each serving 5 years. What is the rational thing to do here? If maintaining your freedom is a priority, then obviously you’re best off confessing before your friend does. But if the game is repeated, that is, if after the first prisoner confesses, the second prisoner is still given the opportunity to confess, the best thing to do over time is to stay silent, because 6 months (the time served if both stay silent) is better than 5 years (the time served if both confess).
Since the Thursday Night Drinking Club do not belong to the criminal underworld, and do not need to maintain trust and relationships of fellow criminals, there is no iteration of the game for them, and so, according to Ian, they have nothing to lose, and much to gain, by betraying Johnny Love.

But, in moral philosophy, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is often used to illustrate how rational self-interest can produce socially undesirable outcomes. Or to put it another way, the problem describes the tension between self-interest and the interests of the group, because a group where everyone acts in self-interest can sometimes produce individuals that are all worse off than they would have been if they had acted in the interest of the group.

As the four friends plan their heist, they fail to anticipate some obvious contingencies, and the robbery goes the only way it could – horribly wrong. Left with a pile of money and a new set of problems, the group promises to lay low for a while, each swearing not to spend their share of the money until the heat has died down and they’re sure they’re beyond suspicion.

But group interests aren’t enough to keep Alex from breaking their pact and paying his overdue child support. Ian, fearing for their personal safety (when Ian exchanged information about their plan for guns, Katz, the gangster running an illegal casino, threatened the lives of his friends if he didn’t settle immediately following the robbery) pays off his gambling debts. However, word travels fast in the underworld, and Victor, the other end of Johnny Love’s deal, gets wind of this ridiculously inept band of robbers. Not planning on ever having to deal with these criminals again, the group didn’t account for iteration – and as things go from bad to heart-breakingly horrible, they quickly realize that what they made the wrong choice: they should have played it straight instead of betraying a group of known criminals.

Despite all this philosophy – Plato, Nietzsche, and Sartre all get paraphrased for good measure – this is a darkly effervescent book. In this fast-paced and entertaining novel, Mr. Sakey spins the crime genre on its head to ask what happens when regular folk take it into their heads to become criminals.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 25 readers
PUBLISHER: NAL Trade; Reprint edition (June 7, 2011)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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August 6, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , , , ,  · Posted in: Thriller/Spy/Caper, US Midwest

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