By Andrew Lipstein
FSG: 240 pages, $27
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Herschel Caine is in a hurry. He’s on his way to untold wealth thanks to his startup’s plan to revolutionize stock investing. Struggling for social status, he strives to impress his posh but art-loving Brooklyn neighbors. and he’s aspiring toward parenthood at breakneck speed — in part, no surprise, to keep up with the people next door.
In Andrew Lipstein’s “The vegan“Caine is a white man’s privilege personified, and his poor judgment and impulsive behavior are extremely damaging and self-destructive.”
Caine’s hedge fund uses proprietary technology developed by his partner that claims it can more accurately predict stock prices…assuming that fronting Caine can raise hundreds of millions from some elusive, even shady characters — and fast.
Things start to go wrong on a business level, but the real disaster occurs at home in Brooklyn when Birdie, an old friend of his wife Franny, joins them and the neighbors for dinner. These neighbors: Clara, an interior designer, and Philip, a Guggenheim descendant who makes intellectual and purposeful films. (Franny is a furniture designer.)
Birdie is a successful British playwright, so Herschel and Franny are counting on her to add a cultural touch to their meeting. Instead, she drinks extravagantly, dominating the conversation so uncomfortably that Herschel, desperate to get rid of her, pours some ZzzQuil into her drink. This move works too well: Birdie thinks he drank too much and ends up apologizing. While waiting for her Uber on the street, she slips and hits her skull on the curb.
When Herschel learns that Birdie is unlikely to wake from the coma he accidentally caused, he is suddenly terrified of the idea of an animal dying for its own pleasure. Immediately he becomes the vegan of the title. This change does little to mitigate his guilt or help him deal with the secrets he’s been guarding at work. He certainly doesn’t reconsider his ambitions to become a master of the universe or his status-seeking lifestyle.
Instead, Herschel is self-centered: he tackles another neighbor because he thinks he’s emotionally attached to his dog at first glance; He sneaks into the local zoo at night to try and communicate with animals, including a red panda who unsurprisingly wants nothing to do with him.
The details we learn about Herschel’s backstory, including a childhood trauma he’s just coming to terms with, make him more empathetic – until he commits his next thoughtless act. He tries to get more in touch with nature without ever understanding it, a lesson he eventually learns from the anoles he buys on further impulse. While Herschel doesn’t really learn from each new mistake for much of the book, his inner search gives Lipstein an opportunity to make thought-provoking comments, even if it feels like self-vindication.
At one point, Herschel notes that the couples he once saw as the most prejudiced are now the unhappiest. “It was not lightly ironic that their problem appeared to be a moral crisis at its core,” writes Lipstein. “Sometimes it seemed as if they treated virtue as previous generations treated wealth: not just as a requirement for social acceptance, but as something to which only a number is assigned. They practically fetishized morality, forgetting what it really was: that it is not a matter of standards but of priorities, that its power comes from compromise, and that two people can both aspire to be Good while there are irreconcilable definitions of the term.”
Later, in a rant about our connection to cell phones, he takes a look at how all of technology has weakened us: “With every improvement that humanity has made, we saw more and more of ourselves and less and less of the world , from which we were eliminated. We just grew in confidence, we got brave in our ignorance, we got deranged, obsessed not with who we were but with who we weren’t.”
With all the eloquent monologues, it sometimes feels that way like Lipstein pushing Herschel into scenes that don’t feel natural. For example, he briefly tries to steal the neighbor’s dog, which is left outside on a leash, in order to feed it the discarded meat. The ensuing argument between Herschel, the dog’s owner, and Philip – who conveniently drops by – is interesting in the abstract but seems narratively manipulative.
On the other hand, when Herschel finally loses control of his own narrative, Lipstein skillfully displays this dissociation by switching from first to third person so that the reader understands that it is Herschel who is recounting his own bad behavior (and not just Lipstein, who writes it).
The bigger problem is Lipstein’s choice of targets. (The satirical target of his debut novel, Last Resort, is a cheeky, failed novelist who steals someone else’s story.) It’s easy to skewer empty nerds, and readers certainly get satisfaction from seeing them do theirs get compensation. But that’s different than writing an all-around successful novel; It’s a tricky business to write a compelling story about such a ruthless capitalist and unpleasant fellow. “Succession” managed this better than most, but had the advantage of multiple monsters, brilliantly profane banter, and mesmerizing actors.
Lipstein drives his story to a driving pace and gives us a lot to think about, such as the question of whether an accident can also be someone else’s fault. But Herschel is the only fully fleshed-out character in the book, and since he’s not only hard to digest but also has an empty soul, The Vegan, for all its flavorful scenes, ultimately leaves you wanting a little more red meat.