In his new novel, Gary Shteyngart chronicles the fall of a rich hedge fund manager on the run from his past and the law after his fund collapses.
To many, the character of Barry Cohen in Shteyngart’s new novel, “Lake Success,” will bear some resemblances to hedge fund titans like Steve Cohen or Bill Ackman. And Barry Cohen is the latest in a long line of fictional Masters of the Universe who are held up for public scorn – from Gordon Gekko in the movie “Wall Street” to Tom Wolfe‘s Sherman McCoy in “Bonfire of the Vanities” to Bobby Axelrod in Showtime’s series “Billions.”
But in an interview with CNBC, Shteyngart said Barry Cohen isn’t based on a single person – but a collage of various hedge fund managers he met and spent time with over four years of researching the book.
“I take characters, I put a bunch of influences in the meat-grinder and we chop it all down,” he said. “Obviously there are some influences like Valeant. But also someone like (Martin) Shkreli pops up,” he said referring to the disgraced hedge fund manager and pharmaceutical company Valeant, which recently changed its name to Bausch Health. Both Shkreli, who ran Turing Pharmaceuticals, and Valeant gained notoriety and congressional inquiries for dramatically hiking the prices of life-savings drugs.
Shteyngart is famous for his prescient, thoroughly reported novels. His last novel, “Super Sad True Love Story,” delved into Silicon Valley and the effects of technology and predicted a wave of class-based New York protests similar to Occupy Wall Street.
Shteyngart said he decided to write about hedge fund executives because as a Manhattan resident, they dominated the social scene and economy.
“I looked around my neighborhood in Manhattan and I realized I didn’t know anyone,” he said. “All my friends had been priced out long time ago. Who’s left? I started talking to them and I realized everyone worked at a hedge fund or private equity or if you were really poor, an investment bank.”
In the book, Barry Cohen’s life begins to fall apart after a failed investment in a pharma company called “Valupro,” which bears a striking resemblance to Valeant. Valupro is described as putting shareholders before customers, shrinking R&D costs and making profits by raising drug prices and doing corporate inversions.
In describing what hedge fund managers actually do to make their millions (and sometimes billions), Barry explains:
“Hedge funds are a story about how we’re going to make money. They are about being smart, gaining access, associating with someone great … You are bringing your investors something far more elusive than a metric. You’re bringing them a story of how great you’ll be together.”
After the stock collapses and Barry gets implicated in an insider trading scandal, he leaves his wife and son and their Manhattan penthouse, ditches his wallet and phone and takes a Greyhound bus across the country to re-discover “his tender young self.”
Shteyngart said that the hedge-fund world is a lot like his former high school.
“I went to Stuyvesent High School, which is a math and science nerd school in Manhattan, ” he said. “There we were obsessed about our GPA. I still remember mine, 88.694. And these guys are obsessed about their basis points on their Bloomberg monitors. So for me it almost felt like a complete continuation of that.”
Shteyngart said that when it came to his own investing, many of the hedge funders gave him the same advice: “They said don’t invest with me. They said buy low-cost index funds.”
Asked about the subject of his next project, Shteyngart said he’s leaning more toward Moscow than Greenwich.
“I was born in Russia, so Russia’s liaison with our current government is something I want to look into.”