Predatory Bender: A Story of Subprime
Finance, by Matthew Lee. Inner City Press. 2004. 360 pp. $19.95 (paperback).www.atlasbooks.com or www.innercitypress.org/books.html.
I have to admit, I approached Predatory Bender with low expectations about enjoying the read. Something about the subtitle, A Story of Subprime Finance, sounded either like stilted Soviet fiction in which the best Communists come out the happiest in the end, or a pretentious title for an expanded and fictionalized case study from a National Community Reinvestment Coalition report.
The initial chapters didn’t quite assuage my anxiety. In them, we meet Jack Bender, manager of a South Bronx branch of EmpiFinancial, a not-really-veiled stand-in for Citigroup’s subprime division, CitiFinancial. From the beginning, Bender is a relentlessly unpleasant character, a vulgar racist and heavy drinker who is addicted to Internet porn and whose one mission in life is saving enough money to kidnap his daughter from his ex-wife. After the first few pages I found myself wanting to say “OK, so predatory lenders are bad people, I get it!”
Meanwhile, crude puns on real people’s names – Sandy Vyle for Sandy Weill, Robert Rudehart for Robert Rubin, Earnest Swanker for New York’s Attorney General Eliot Spitzer – contributed to a feeling that morality was about to be shoved down our throats.
It’s hard to know how easy the readers’ crash course in predatory lending, told through Bender’s eyes, would be for someone who didn’t already have a grasp of the basics, but it is certainly presented as hands-down evil. Early on, we see Bender and his colleagues force-selling credit insurance up front on a loan for a bed, which nearly doubles the price, giving a couple with perfect credit a subprime interest rate that comes out to payments they can’t afford and chatting about a range of other exploitative practices.
Praise be, however, that the predatory lending system (OK, and maybe Mr. Vyle) are the only things in this novel that are given a black-and-white treatment. Thirty or forty pages in, I found myself completely absorbed in a story that ricocheted between the streets of the Bronx and the high-powered palaces of Wall Street. Jack Bender has a change of heart and turns against his old place of employment, setting in motion a series of exposés, court cases and political intrigue. His quest to get severance (and revenge) links together a wide cast of characters, all of whom are driven by addictions, obsessions and selfishness.
Even Kurt Wheelock, the idealistic young kid with the Web site who wants to expose Empi’s dirty doings, is just as screwed up as everyone else in the book. It’s that even-handed and unflinching look at people’s underlying motivations – the ones on “our” side, the ones who aren’t and the majority where it’s quite unclear – that makes this story work. Lee’s characters’ interior monologues may not be pretty, but they do ring true, and get under your skin.
Yes, Predatory Bender turns out to be one hell of a yarn – a clever and complex piece of fiction that glories in shades of grey. The interplay of lawyers, media, politicians and corporate hacks puts flesh and bones and faces on the web that most people trying to change it just call “the system.” And the parts of the system that readers recognize will elicit chuckles as well as grimaces. In particular, Lee, a public interest lawyer who has run Inner City Press in the Bronx for over 15 years and has long been deeply involved in redlining and reinvestment issues, gives us utterly fascinating courtroom scenes.
My unexpected delight in the story (and the storytelling) makes me even sadder about the shoddy editing. A few typos are to be expected, but this had the ring, or rather the rough ride, of a manuscript that no one but its author had ever read before it got to print. Repeated typos, incomplete sentences, confusing tense switches, and Freudian slips (Vyle is called Vile more than once), really do detract from the reading experience, and made me as a reader feel like I hadn’t been worth the effort for a proper proofread.
Similarly, only worse, the “nonfiction advocates’ afterword” is a mess. Perhaps it was written too closely to the writing of the novel, for it seems to be straining to maintain the novel’s blunt, raw, fast-paced style, which results in a “primer” that reads like a series of inside jokes. (Having to repeatedly refer forward for explanations should have been a warning sign that the organization could have used a little more thought.)
That said, Predatory Bender should be on the reading list of everyone who’s remotely involved in community reinvestment, as a good reminder of the complicated, unsanitized reality in which these issues get played out. And because it’s a good story.
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