Spit Shine

John Freeman
3 min read
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You’re not Master of the Universe unless there’s someone at your feet, preferably kneeling. In Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities , Sherman McCoy had Felix, the shoeshine man, to play that role.

“He liked the way Felix humped over, shell-backed,” Wolfe wrote of how Sherman enjoyed the weekly ritual, “as if enveloping the shoe with his body and soul. He could see the top of the black man’s head.”

Well, here is a novel from that view, looking up. Vanity Fair editor Doug Stumpf presents Aguilar Gil Benicio, better known as Gil, a Brazilian-born immigrant who has dropped out of high school and shines shoes in New York for a living.

After a stint at a store, Gil has become the house shine for Medved, Morningstar and Bigelow, a Wall Street firm packed with testosterone-addled traders and eagle-eyed secretaries.

“A lot of people there only start treating me good because they see the other ones that is really on the top treating me so nicily,” says Gil, who Stumpf presents as a charmer, even if he struggles with his adverbs.

“This is the way I deal with peoples at my job. The shoes to me doesn’t really matter. It’s the way the persons going to treat me.”

That’s about as concise a definition of manners as you will find in a novel this summer. If Gil’s Brazilian accent never quite rings true, the hooks land anyway. It’s easy to follow Gil on his wide-eyed tour of the trading floor and the men and women who make their fortunes there.

Welcome to the zoology of money making. We learn how the traders eat, what they earn, how they tip and who they bonk. As in so many offices, successful women are plagued by sexual rumors, and the further one goes up the corporate ladder, the less the executives seem to work.

“Some guys goes go over there all the time,“ Gil notes of the alpha men and their restroom use. “Sometimes this guys stay in the bathroom forty minutes, reading newspapers. You don’t see little guys do that.”

Gil has been put up to this bit of anthropological research, as it turns out. Greg Waggoner, a journalist at Glossy magazine, stumbled upon him and recruits him as a good source for an insider trading story.

That’s because a janitor was fired after discovering one of the most aggressive young traders in a closet using his mobile phone—a violation for how it can be abused to pass along industry secrets. Hoping to help the janitor get his job back, Gil agrees to be Greg’s spy, setting in motion a story of scandal that the two narrate in tandem.

Stumpf has plotted the book well. Just when you tire of Greg’s scheming and naked ambition, along comes Gil to talk straight. Gil is of course drawn in much deeper than he’d expected and ultimately faces moral choices attached to dollar signs.

In this fashion, Gil’s story can be digested in a few hours—just inside the window whereby his poorly rendered English would become blindingly irritating.

But it’s long enough to create a vivid portrait of a world run by those who mostly don’t notice the little people, even when they are walking all over them.
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