If research is essential to fiction, then the new thriller Top Producer by Norb Vonnegut ’80, M.B.A. ’86, boasts sterling credentials. This is Vonnegut’s first novel (yes, he is a fourth cousin to Kurt; “all Vonneguts are related,” he explains), but it builds on his two decades as a Wall Street stockbroker and investment adviser to wealthy clients. “I didn’t start with the idea of writing a mystery,” he says. “I just tried to tell the best story I could about Wall Street—funny, shocking, horrific, a story where you would learn a little something. Wall Street is so rich with stories, and it was something I understood and enjoyed.”
The book opens with a terrifying scene in which Charlie Keleman, a spectacularly rich, high-living investment manager who runs his own firm, hosts a black-tie gala for 500 friends to celebrate his wife’s birthday. The New York convoy flies in to party at Boston’s New England Aquarium, with its four-story-tall Giant Ocean Tank filled with live sea creatures. At the height of the festivities, Charlie momentarily disappears, and is next spotted inside that tank with a caterer’s cart roped to his ankle, pulling him down like an anchor. The guests then helplessly witness his savage execution by shark bites.
The question, as always, is, “Whodunit?” Charlie’s reputation as the most amiable of men only deepens the mystery. His best friend, narrator Grover O’Rourke—a Wall Streeter himself and 32-year-old widower—becomes enmeshed in the homicide investigation. “Grover goes through life keeping his head down, trying to do the right thing,” Vonnegut explains. “Then suddenly something big and bad comes along and turns his world upside down.” He adds that, “In the wake of [the financial collapse of] 2008, a lot of us can relate.”
Indeed, Top Producer, written in 2006 and 2007, resonates so clearly with certain recent financial news that at one point Vonnegut called his agent and his editor at Minotaur Books/St. Martin’s to say, “My novel just came true.” He keeps a hand in the financial world with a blog called Acrimoney (acrimoney.com), but has become a full-time writer now. Top Producer had a huge first printing of 100,000 copies, and Vonnegut is now working on a second novel.
“A stockbroker’s life means waking up really early,” he says. “You are constantly on the phone, in the middle of sensory overload. There are two TV screens, tuned to CNBC and Fox Business, 200 or 300 e-mails a day, and the squawk box. You’re totally a conduit for information and you quickly lose control of your day.” To write Top Producer, Vonnegut woke even earlier, at 5 a.m., and wrote until 7 o’clock, as well as on evenings and weekends. “Writing, I was in charge,” he says. “I loved the process. It gave me the opportunity to decompress.”
The novel also gave Vonnegut the chance to explain the workings of Wall Street, which “outside a 50-mile radius of New York City,” he says, “is a four-letter word.” And though his background does share certain elements with his narrator, there are also bedrock differences. Grover O’Rourke, for example, “is a stunning athlete,” Vonnegut says. “I’m not.”