Nothing Gained by Phillip Y. Kim
reviewed by Timothy Sifert
8 May 2013 — Jason Donahue, the Hong Kong banker at the centre of Phillip Y. Kimís debut novel†Nothing Gained, has been living the male expat fantasy.
The night before he dies, Jason is at a closing dinner for a very unethical $120 million investment in a money-spinning Macau casino. Dominique Flaubert, his French paramour and subordinate at investment bank Barker Reed, is by his side. His beautiful Korean-American wife, Cheryl, is at their beachfront Hong Kong home with their two childrenóprobably longing for his return.
Thankfully,†Nothing Gained†is not really about this American dealmakerís short but charmed life. Instead, his drowning in Deep Water Bay forces Cheryl to engage the manís world of Asian finance to find the true cost of all those expensive amenities she required and took for granted as a bankerís wife. In short, she must sort out the disaster he leaves behind while keeping her children, and their trust funds, safe.
Her husband has indeed left behind a big mess. At the Macau†dinner, Jason indelicately tells the hirsute Howard Leitner, his intended casino partner, that he will only transfer $100 million of the US$120 million heíd promised. The remaining $20 million will be his fee. Without his connections, Jason suggests, Beijing would have never agreed to the deal with such an Asia novice as Howard.
The missing millions propel one of two storylines. The strong but emotive Cheryl Donahue and Todd Leahy, Jasonís anodyne chief of staff, look for a way out of paying the money (and, strangely, consider paying it). Cheryl and her children, at the same time, face serious threats from Leitner and his double-crossing crew of Asian miscreants.
The second storyline is also related to Jasonís past handiwork. Barker Reed, at Jasonís insistence, raised capital for hedge fund manager Winston Chan when no other firm dared. Jason and Dominique usher hundreds of millions of dollars Winstonís way, putting Barkerís sterling reputation on the line. When the novel begins, his fundsí performance has been so good for so long that Bernie Madoff comparisons are made, investors start to redeem and the Hong Kong regulator is in pursuit.
Winston and his liaison at Barker, a heartbroken Dominique, flee Asia, although separately. Soon, Barker Reed executives, financial regulators, Cheryl, Todd, Israeli and Russian spies, an Indonesian thug, among others, are looking for them. No doubt there are a lot of interests to keep track of here, but not all of them are necessary.
Kim, who has worked in finance for 25 years, writes about an industry he knows well. The novel is notionally set in 2010. Readers who have personally navigated the credit crisis, or just kept abreast of it in the press, will find much to identify with in Nothing Gained. Besides Madoffís Ponzi scheme, Lehman Brothers and CEO Dick Fuld are named and shamed. The sale of failing Bear Stearns to JP Morgan ďfor a songĒ is also featured.
This sort of exposition, when itís not clear how important it is to Asia, let alone the novelís plot, can be intrusive. On the other hand, Kimís voluptuous descriptions of food, wine and all things Asia, though certainly over-enthusiastic, are in keeping with the storyís premise. Might Cherylís true nemesis be conspicuous consumption, the hallmark of wealthy expats in Asia, and not Dominique, Howard or the memory of her rotten husband? Has Kim written a satire and not a financial thriller?
The last word should go to Cheryl. After one hell of a meeting at the Conrad hotel, in the first half of the novel, Cheryl wends through the ďcanned airĒ of the Pacific Place mall to Dan Ryanís bar and orders ďa chardonnay, not specifying a particular label.Ē
The lack of status-revealing detail here is important. It takes a little while before this oenophile recognises the flavour: ďThere was something about this modest wine that she embraced. It tasted like honesty.Ē
Timothy Sifert is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
© 2013 The Asian Review of Books.1