Written in the serviceable prose-style of a newspaper reporter that keeps the reader turning the pages, Mark Carp’s new novella, Cain, Abel and the Family Cohen, tells the story of the rapid rise and breathtakingly precipitous fall of Jonas Cohen, the youngest child of Rabbi Abraham Cohen. Related largely in the first person by Jonas himself (with a couple of minor but confusing switches in point of view in several places), Carp takes us through the beginning of the recent financial crisis when the housing bubble burst, financial institutions tanked and the economy went to hell. Jonas, a recent college graduate and hotshot financial analyst, has just joined the Frick Group, a New York hedge fund where he had interned for several summers.
A precocious investment analyst, Jonas foresees the downturn in the housing market when he arrives in New York to begin his job (his family is from Baltimore where his father leads a congregation) and notices the vastly overpriced properties. He quickly does his research and advises his boss, A.J. Buckner, about the imminent decline in prices and advises him that the Frick Group should begin “shorting housing indexes,” a maneuver to maximize shareholder profits by betting on the decline in housing prices. A real estate broker by day, Carp writes with authority about this in a concise and enlightening manner while furthering his plot.
Jonas’ predictions and advice pan out and he becomes something of a Wall Street celebrity, interviewed on business talkshow programs and consulted for his insights into the economy. A wunderkind, by his own description.
Jonas is one of three children. His older sister, Rachel, has also moved to New York, an aspiring actress with a role in a Broadway play, Middle of the Night. Jonas and his sister are close. In fact, the whole family is close; at least, that’s how Rabbi Cohen sees it. “Each of us supports the other, and because of that our lives will always have meaning,” he tells his children. “Your family will always be your ‘home.’” Famous last words. But Jonas is certainly supportive of his sister and attends her rehearsals, where he meets and becomes involved with Frieda Katz, the cousin of Sidney Katz, producer-director of Middle of the Night.
Jonas also joins a synagogue where he meets Mr. Samuels, a wealthy benefactor who is impressed by Jonas’ chanting of an aliyah and takes an interest in him. He refers to Jonas affectionately as a “yeshiva bucher,” a serious student of Judaic studies. Through Mr. Samuels, Jonas also becomes involved with Samuels’ niece, Sylvia, a dental student in Philadelphia.
And this is where Jonas’ problems begin.
Carp does a remarkable job of trying to make an essentially unlikeable person (Jonas) seem sympathetic. We all know the low esteem with which most people regard the legendary Wall Street sharks who made vast profits on the suffering of others. As Jonas later tells a Congressional committee investigating Wall Street investors for making unconscionable profits, “We have a fiduciary responsibility on behalf of our investors to find opportunities and maximize their returns. That’s what we’re in business for.” Fair enough, but when it comes to the way he plays Frieda and Sylvia against one another, the reader’s compassion is further strained.
But even here, we can feel some sympathy. By his own confession, Jonas has never been a ladykiller, but with his new-found celebrity all this changes. Can we really blame him for finding it difficult to choose between two attractive women who are clearly drawn to him, charmed by him? By the end of the novel, Jonas is a victim, a patsy, and he does merit our sympathy, but only in the way we feel sorry for a nebbish.
For indeed, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and when Jonah chooses Sylvia over Frieda, his brief success and well-being quickly unravel. In a rather swift unfolding of events, Jonas sees his love life and his career implode, in part due to the treachery of the jilted woman but also – and this is where the title comes in – by his older brother, Isaac, a Maryland congressman.
Unfortunately, we don’t really know much about Isaac (Cain) except that he’s a politician who promises people what they want to hear and that he’s involved in an extramarital affair with Frieda. What are his motives in sacrificing his brother? The original Cain slew Abel out of jealousy when God rejected his offerings but accepted his younger brother’s. Somehow this model doesn’t quite fit here, even though the two are brothers. This may be quibbling, but still, if it’s part of the book’s title we really need to know more about the relationship between these brothers, but Isaac is mostly absent from the story.
Jewish themes abound in Mark Carp’s writing. The Last Jew is a futuristic story about a pogrom 250 years in the future; The Extraordinary Times of Ordinary People is the story of Alvin Carpman, a German-Jewish émigré who escaped Germany after Kristallnacht; the protagonist of The End of Hell, David Kravitz, who helped liberate Dachau, is tormented by memory as he tapes his memoirs for a Jewish war veterans’ group.
Cain, Abel and the Family Cohen ends in such a way that the reader has an expectation that there will be a follow-up. Indeed, this story of the Cohens has the feel of a saga that will continue. So much of the story of Jonas, Isaac, and Rachel (not to mention Frieda and Sidney Katz) remains untold.
Similar Reads:The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson, is a 1955 novel about the American search for purpose in a world dominated by business.