Review: Kapitoil

By Peter Moss, December 28, 2010
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New York, 1999. The Twin Towers are still twins… and towers. Out of the elevator and on to the 88th floor steps a young Muslim, hero of Kapitoil, by Teddy Wayne (Duckworth, £8.99) He is soon to make his mark on the USA - not in ways more stereotypically associated with his brethren, but by intellect alone.

Karim Issar is not your conventional literary hero. Shy and diffident, tongue-tied and somewhat tone-deaf in the art of modern idiom (though as a Qatari removed to Manhattan this is not altogether surprising), he is, to all intents and purposes, Clark Kent without the clothes-change routine or the super powers… except perhaps one.

His gift for financial wizardry is about to surf the improbable in predicting oil futures and reap hitherto uncharted profits for his bosses at Schrub Equities. His programme for capitalising on oil prices becomes his first stab at English wordplay: "Capitalize + Oil = Capitoil. That's K-A-P-I-T-O-I-L", he says to his colleagues. "I want people to remember this was Karim-esque".

Big business and number crunching are subjects that leave me not so much cold as positively hypothermic. But Teddy Wayne digs way deeper than the surface sheen of the big deal and the fast buck. Warmth and humour percolate the emotional redundancy and moral vacuity that routinely inhabit the corporate world, resulting in a book both touching and funny, the sing-song rhythm of technical jargon acquiring an almost pop-lyric cadence.

He is Clark Kent with just the one super power

This book's hero, at once needy and nerdy, astute and sublimely logical, loses his virginity…several times. He loses it to art, to music, to Halloween, Thanksgiving and Starbucks. He loses it to his colleague Rebecca Goldman (though he might already have actually lost it by then), and finally to racquetball, his first stab at sport and a game he perfects by calculating the cubic capacity of the court over the diameter of the ball multiplied by the number of balls the court can hold (1.76 million, but that shouldn't ruin the ending for you).

In short Karim finally loses his cherry to the Great American Way without ever compromising his values. Well, once. He lays between Egyptian sheets with a half-Jewish American girl on the Upper West Side listening to Bob Dylan intoning With God On Our Side… during Ramadan. As his indomitable boss Derek Schrub had once told him: "Every day there are shifts so small you do not identify them, until finally you become a different person without even recognising it".

With the possible exception of Kurt Vonnegut's dystopian Player Piano, I can think of no debut novel that has more engaged and enthralled me than Teddy Wayne's offering.

    Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011