by Joe Shea
American Reporter Book Review Editor
January 13, 2005
'THE CHAIRMAN' DISPLAYS A MUCH-IMPROVED STEPHEN FREY
BRADENTON, Fla. -- As a writer, Stephen Frey - who in real life is a managing partner of a private equity firm in northern Virginia - has finally found his form in his latest novel, "The Chairman," about the inner sanctums of a private equity firm. You may recall that the last time we reviewed his work, we almost fell asleep at the climax; not this time, we're glad to say.
In this, Frey's tenth novel, a battle of corporate titans turns ugly indeed. I didn't count the dead bodies that litter the pages, but there must have been a dozen or more before I reached the end.
The catalyst for all this mayhem - which occurs on starkly different landscapes from near the Arctic Circle in Canada to midtown Manhattan, genteel Long Island and the swamps of Gulf Coast Mississippi - is the clash between two giant "private equity" firms that buy out private companies, turn them around and take them through an IPO hoping to clear a huge profit when the public jumps in, all quite legally.
Private equity inflated the dot-com bubble, began some of the great companies of the Internet Age - Google, Yahoo, Ebay, Amazon - and figured prominently in the Wall Street insider-trading scandals of several years ago. IPO insiders always have an opportunity to mislead and bilk the American public, and sorting out the honest from the frauds is not an easy task when some many of the same kind of people work for both.
Christian Gillette is a golden boy of this world who ascends to the chairmanship of Everest, the private equity firm that is at the center of the struggle between a rival firm, its partners and its wholly- or partly-owned companies.
In this case, though, corporate rivalries are less responsible for a string of murders, starting with the former chairman of Everest, than a dimly-seen figure who slowly emerges amid a crowd of double-dealing, underhanded, knife-wielding and downright nasty blue-chip corporate types who run the firm and the competition.
The identity of that killer keeps you guessing through a series of complicated financial deals, including the bidding for an underrated Canadian oil property, the sale of a deadly security firm, a bloody attempt to take over Everest and a S&L scandal that wrecks a solid Virginia bank.
The book tends to be rather spare in a lot of ways, but a particularly interesting friendship grows up between a personal biodyguard, former U.S. Secret Service agent Quentin Stiles, and Gillette, whose every friend seems to be aiming a handgun, knife, rifle or bomb at him. Another relationship, this one not platonic, blooms between Gillette and a beautiful rock star, and between him and a stunningly beautiful peasant-type Latina, Isabelle. All three friendships are nicely resolved.
This is a substantially longer and much more satisying read than "Day Trader," and perhaps just a tad less engaging than the immediately preceding novel from Frey, "The Insider."
But between those two and "Day Trader," Frey has clearly resolved his plotting problems and now - since we've seen the first chapter of his next book, "The Protege," at the end of this one - there's an enduring character with tremendous potential in Christian Gillette. We just hope Frey will use him well and to his fullest; we'll keep reading to find out.
Joe Shea is Editor of the American Reporter Book Review. he bought this book at Wal-Mart for $5.97 and "The Insider" there for $1.92.