FRED G. LEEBRON’S provocative second novel takes on the frustrations of the young American middle class, born to privilege and fearful they may fail in their expected pursuit of success. By painstakingly dissecting the thwarted aspirations of its main character, Warner Lutz, it serves as a cautionary tale for the nasdaq generation.
Warner is in non-profit fundraising, and feels he’s been outstripped by his contemporaries, already enjoying Porsches and exotic vacations. Though he’s in the business of helping the poor, he can’t stop dreaming of the material comforts his background and education seem to promise. ‘Yet he still wanted more. Every morning when he drove Sophie in their shitcan hundred-thousand-plus mile Honda with the guardrail crease down one side to the private but only $175-a-month preschool and he saw the other parents in their new Volvos and minivans and Suburbans, he wanted more.’
The Lutzes are newly moved with their two children to Charlotte, a boom town awash in conspicuous consumption. Warner’s wife Megan latches onto a hardly paying job at a gallery that specializes in corporate art–a job that nonetheless threatens Warner’s sense of self, as he has to remind himself that he still makes ten thousand more than she does.
As in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, everything in Six Figures has a price tag, a value as a status symbol, except–unlike the hero of Fight Club, who comes to understand his soul sickness–Warner desperately aspires to this materialism, even feels anger at those who have achieved it ahead of him. ‘Perhaps his negativism was devolving through envy into insanity, but you couldn’t fail to see, no matter how much you tried, the quick doubling of the stock market, the decline of mortgage rates, the ascent of salaries of nearly everyone you knew–your mother, your siblings, your college and graduate school classmates–into the land of six figures.’
Six Figures is about desire, about unfulfilled expectations and how they eat away at a person. Warner is dissatisfied with everything in his life. He gets no respect at work, their daughter Sophie is judged to be slow by their daycare, and Megan wants a house they can’t afford. When his job at the non-profit organization MORE is jeopardized through no real fault of his own, he begins to implode. He’s intelligent and hardworking; he deserves better than this. At home, the smaller frustrations of watching the children drive him further within himself.
And then, without warning, someone attacks Megan at the gallery. It’s unclear who. She and Warner had just argued bitterly, and Warner took off in the car with the children, saying he’d take them to the lake. But he didn’t take them to the lake; he angrily made a U-turn as the scene closed.
The arrival of violence midway through the book changes the stakes of Six Figures. Where before we were watching the slow erosion of a man and his family, now we await the outcome of what seems to be a mystery. Will Megan recover? Will she end up brain-damaged? Her mother suspects Warner, as do the police. Warner’s parents come down to Charlotte as well, and the friction between all the parties involved brings up unresolved issues from the past–revelations of domestic violence and sexual infidelity that may figure into the mix. The issues so clearly outlined in the beginning exposition give way to a different kind of inquiry.
This is all done in short, succinct takes, jumpcutting between the major characters. At first, Warner is given center stage, but as the book progresses, the author spreads the narration around, somewhat diluting his effect. The hateful relationships uncovered by the introduction of the parents tend to be thin and melodramatic, not as rich as the earlier sections.
But what audacity Leebron has, dealing with what might be seen, in this age of heartwarming novels, as unsympathetic, even ugly-spirited characters. Listen to Warner, ruminating about the woman who has labeled Sophie as slow: ‘He knew who Mary was. She was the fat bitch with the tree-trunk legs and the barn-sized behind. She wore a lot of denim, and her big fat face had thin judgmental lips and patronizing eyes set behind schoolteacher glasses.’ Greed and anger are merely symptoms of a larger spiritual sickness. Warner and Megan, in their selfishness, in their self-absorption and belief in themselves as special and deserving, are reminiscent of Frank and April Wheeler of Richard Yates’s great Revolutionary Road.
Their fate is less dire than that of the Wheelers, however. The attack on Megan, rather than complicating their previous issues, dispenses with them, clears the air. The cautionary tale works its magic, and in the end the main characters (and their fortunes) are deeply changed, but not before Six Figures has shown us the squirmy underside of middle class ambition.