City Lit: Roman a Klepto

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BRANDING MATTERS, even on the Left. Think of the “Battle for Seattle” demo. Was it the most important political protest of the past 20 years? Probably not, but it was certainly the best named. And whoever came up with “pro-choice” is a marketing genius, up there with the Pfizer flack who riffed on those potent honeymoon waterfalls and generated “Viagra.” Yes, Virginia, words do matter.

That’s why we ought to praise whoever coined “predatory lending.” The phrase slices through thickets of mind-numbing legalese (“yield-spread premiums,” anyone?) to create an image of rapacious bankers targeting borrowers like helpless prey to be pounced on. Arguably, that portrayal helped rescue a major problem from obscurity and transformed it into a matter of mainstream concern.

But not for long. Back in the day, a critical mass of press and politicians expressed outrage that little old black ladies were losing their homes because slimy con artists were lying to them, and sneaking needless fees and bizarre rules into their mortgage agreements. During the peak of public interest, Fox Problem Solvers generated clucks of disapproval, and in a few places litigators, regulators and statehouses banned the most egregious excesses of predatory lending.

That was nice, but in itself it was also too easy, because the hard part about predatory lending is understanding it profoundly enough to resist the practice. It is more than the sum of its parts. Way more, that is to say, than hidden fees, “credit insurance” and prepayment penalties.

It is, as Matthew Lee cleverly illustrates in his wacky new novel, Predatory Bender: America in the Aughts: A Story of Subprime Finance, a stunningly successful business plan–one that has driven profits for big, respectable banks and finance companies around the world. Predatory lending, Lee argues, isn’t the seamy side of finance. It is finance.

And in the sprawling and hyperkinetic … er, let’s just call it Bender, getting to that understanding is half the fun. Lee’s novel is not the pedantic primer you might expect from the Bronx’s omnipresent and tireless banking activist. Instead it’s a dizzying blend of satire, rant and legal thriller.

The plot is driven by scores of characters, including EmpiFinancial’s Bronx branch manager Jack Bender, who turns whistle-blower after losing his job; Bertha Watkins, the single mom Empi tricked into paying $200 a month in credit insurance for a $2,500 bedroom set; Micah Levine, a storefront, ambulance-chasing attorney who goes after Empi in part because he lusts for Bertha; Sandy Vyle, EmpiGroup’s heartless head honcho; Robert Rudehart, former Treasury secretary who’s now Empi’s public face; and Tom Bain, a coke-snorting horndog who analyzes Empi’s stock.

The character most likely to draw grins from City Limits readers–and a few winces too–is the one who’s at least loosely based on Lee himself. Kurt Wheelock is a mildly hysterical activist with the hots for Latinas, who once worked for a leftist, East Village cult, then started his own one-man show by producing a website, WatchCorp, to investigate and critique corporations.

Thankfully, Lee doesn’t spare his doppelgänger Wheelock, who is obsessive and once even abusive, slapping a woman in the face. Here are his ruminations as he rants to his bored girlfriend about capitalism over a Vietnamese meal:


Kurt put the spring roll down and then thought the better of it, popped it into his mouth. The pastry was crisp; there was mint or something in it. Amazing, Kurt thought, how America had napalmed the Vietnamese but expropriated their cuisine, which itself was a product of French colonialism. Maybe WatchCorp should run restaurant reviews, a set of anti-imperialistic recipes, a hundred and one ways for tofu and ginger to fuck on your plate.

Indeed, though the satire in Bender is most hotly directed at Empi and its cronies, one of the book’s strengths is its tendency to trash everyone–activists, attorneys, politicians and bankers–as self-absorbed and unaware of it.

Plays on real names are everywhere, so transparent that the lack of subtlety itself is a hoot. Empi and Vyle are clearly Citi and Weil, for example. And there’s a particular delight in reading the brutal portrayal of New York State’s ambitious attorney general, Ernest Swanker, “the patrician defender of the downtrodden” with “corporate hides on his walls. A new Teddy Roosevelt. Not as hearty, perhaps, and with no taste for hunting. But he knew a photo op when he saw one.”

Surprisingly, Bender’s classic thriller approach is what keeps you turning the pages. You get the point pretty quickly that Empi is slimy to its core and that the institutions that could step in and defend victim Watkins–her attorney, the whistle-blower, the crusading activist, a Bronx court, a Wall Street Journal reporter, the attorney general–are at minimum deeply flawed, and, more often than not, patently corrupt. So once that’s out of the way, what matters is pace and clever plot. Will Empi actually whack someone? Will Bender get his revenge? Will Watkins keep her couch? Which Latina will Wheelock bed?

One criticism of the novel: Lee switches characters too fast, from Bender to Levine to Swanker all in a half page, for example. The speed makes for a breathless pace, but it’s also herky-jerky and sometimes confusing. Further, the book could have used someone with a sharp red pencil. Considering that Bender appears to be entirely self-edited, however, mistakes are actually few and excess verbiage minimal.

Take a deep breath after you finish the novel. You’re not done yet. Turn the book over. There’s another one! Here’s the nonfiction primer you’d expect Lee to write (and,

if you’re a reader of www.innercitypress.org, one he’s been writing for the last several years). It’s Predatory Lending: Toxic Credit in the Global Inner City, 90 pages of what really happens with lending finance and how activists like Lee’s own Inner City Press try to stop it.

Lee situates the history of predatory lending in the longer, sadder story of banking in poor neighborhoods. First, there was abandonment, also called redlining, as bank after bank responded to urban unrest by deciding that it was too risky to loan to low-income people.

That was a shortsighted move. “The postmodern twist is for the same banks which left to return with loan shark affiliates,” Lee writes. “It’s one thing to sell cups of water for one hundred dollars in a desert. But when the seller is the one who slashed and burned the land, creating the need, it is something else.”

Beyond the obvious cost of predatory lending to society, especially to poor neighborhoods, there’s another huge reason why the issues that Lee dissects matter so much right now: We are a nation in serious-ass debt. Take historically low interest rates, add an increasingly aggressive lending industry, and you’ve got millions of Americans with huge credit card debt, piles of student loans and worst of all, houses that are leveraged and borrowed against nearly to the max.

Debt for everyone: singles, families, young and old. A recent New York Times story noted that homeowners 65 or older had $44,000 in mortgage debt in 2001, more than three times the $12,000 their households carried in 1989.

So we borrow a lot. Who cares, right? Without credit the most recent recession would have been a lot worse than it was.

But someday, maybe soon, as interest rates begin to slowly creep up, things could get scary. The wave of debt foreclosure that we’re already seeing could get bigger. Banks and finance companies might begin to call in their chits, repossessing our couches, our cars and, scariest of all, seizing and auctioning our homes. Then we’d all be prey for the predators.

People with good credit who pay on time don’t make much money for EmpiGroup and its real-life cousins; after all, the game of finance needs tardiness and default. So when the one million Bertha Watkinses out there now become 50 million people, we’ll all need Matthew Lee. We’ll need him to investigate the lenders, read the fine print, explain their tactics, haul their asses into court–and write the occasional novel to keep us laughing. •

Former City Limits editor and writer Matt Pacenza is currently a staff reporter at the Albany Times Union.