“Money kills the imagination. It makes us want the same thing.”
Those of us who’ve had front row seats to the recent real estate bubble grasp that we’ve lived through fantastic times that will make the history books; the big question is: how will that history will be told? Articles about the real estate bubble in North America often present this period as a time of insanity–as if some sort of virus swept through the land, taking the form of national madness as household after household, suddenly under water, fell to re-fi (leveraging your equity), ‘creative financing, or the ‘real estate as investment’ bug. Actually that attitude annoys me because it avoids the obvious truth regarding responsibility–that people were active participants and that segments of the financial world largely avoided accountability.
Because of my attitude towards the real estate bubble, I loved parts of Claire Kilroy’s novel, The Devil I Know, but at the same time due to its Hoffmanesque undertone, it buys into the myth of the bubble. Although adding macabre, other worldly elements may be as good a way as any other of explaining the insanity of the real estate bubble, and to Kilroy’s credit, her unique approach to the subject certainly works here.
The emphasis in The Devil I Know is in Ireland, on the powers behind the bubble and not on the average homeowner, and we know, of course, the final outcome of those heady days of financial excess. The book opens with Tristram Amory St. Lawrence, the thirteenth Earl of Howth testifying in a 2016 court case regarding the Celtic Tiger and his role in the disastrous real estate bubble which took place in the mid 1990s until the collapse in 2008. With Tristram directing his apologia towards Fergus (Justice O’Reilly) and fielding the occasional question, the story builds over the course of a few days as Tristram, a recovering alcoholic, recalls how, in 2006, his plane, en route to Florida, was unexpectedly diverted to Dublin. He stayed away from his home for “unspeakably personal reasons,” and as soon as he lands it becomes clear why he didn’t want to return.
Within a short period of time, Tristram, who’s been thought dead by everyone who knew him (“that was another Tristram St Lawrence,”) is being pestered by low-rent contractor Desmond Hickey, the coarse bully of Tristram’s miserable school days. Years may have passed, but little has changed; Desmond is still a bullying Neanderthal, an “indigenous short-arse,” who insists that Tristram, upper-class and educated, is gay, and that “he’s scared to bend over” around Tristram. Desmond, however, may be just a small-time contractor, but he’s a man with vision, and more importantly, a man with large appetites and ambition. After learning that Tristram inherited Hilltop, a gorgeous neglected eight acre estate from his mother, and that Tristram has access to financing through his mysterious benefactor/acquaintance/sponsor, M. Deauville, Desmond insists that Tristram get financing as the newly appointed director of Castle Holdings. Castle Holdings is a “shell company. It bought nothing, sold nothing manufactured nothing, did nothing … yet it returned a profit of 66 million that first year.” But “who better to direct a shell company than a shell of a human being?” And Ireland, is, after all, a “low-taxation jurisdiction with benevolent regulation policies.” And so the madness begins….
Desmond’s first plan is to build on land zoned for industrial use. Re-zoning is no problem, and Minister Lawless, a gray, grimy little man is only too happy to reconsider zoning when presented with packet of cash. Desmond borrows the money to buy the land with its price tag of 10 million. Within six weeks, the land is worth sixty million: “a profit of over one million a day, ” and here’s Desmond in one of his portakabins as he pours over his ridiculous plans:
Displayed on a board like a wedding cake was the scale model of a modern urban residential and commercial development typical of and appropriate to, say, a downtown waterside location in an East Coast US city: eight towers of glass clustered in a crystalline formation.
The plans include a hotel, a leisure centre, a crèche, an underground car park, and apartments, and here’s Desmond Hickey inspecting the architect’s “computer-generated shots” with his “chip-shop fingerprints.”
Along a glittering limestone avenue with Ireland’s Eye in the background a man walked a bichon frise.
“Who’s this prick?” said Hickey. “He looks bent.”
Morgan leaned in to consider the photo.
“With apartment developments in wealthy areas, our firm find it’s advantageous to include representation of at least one member of the gay community. It’s a sector of the population with a high disposable income.”
“Keep him so,” Hickey decreed, “but no leezers.” He passed me the offending image. It was a man in a pair of calf-length shorts and a polo shirt. The man looked neither gay nor straight, he just looked preposterous. They all looked preposterous. Every last one of them was dressed for a Mediterranean summer. Sunglasses and shorts and sandals. This development promised another climate.
Desmond, a crude, opportunistic bully, is the perfect man for these excessive times. His marketing strategy for his grotty little apartments is brilliant and shows his understanding of the darker side of human nature. Is he a product of the real-estate madness or did his kind help fuel the boom? You have to love that word ‘boom’ because you know there’s going to be a big explosion somewhere in the not-too-distant future, and of course even as things spiral out of control in Tristram’s world with crazier and crazier real estate transactions taking place–flipping a hotel in London and “shifting a shopping mall in Dubai,” momentum gathers in the sinister, incautious power brokers of the Golden Circle–the men with ‘the terrible hunger in them, the insatiable drive to acquire,” until … well the collapse.
Most of the book’s humour (and there’s a great deal of it here,) in this very entertaining book comes from Desmond and not our narrator Tristram–two men of vast contrasts with the implied idea that Desmond is the ‘new’ man who needs the use of the gentry to open doors that once were closed to him while Tristram is a passive tool. One of the very best scenes which epitomizes the insatiable hunger of Desmond and his cohorts takes place at Desmond’s ranch where gluttony, savagery and excess is the mantra for the day.
Hickey had built a mock-colonial ranch on the side of the East Mountain. He had cultivated the gorse and heather into lawn. A row of floodlit palm trees delineated the end of nature’s dominion over the moors and the beginning of the reign of the developer.
While for this reader the other world elements detracted from the novel, it’s still fairly easy to see why the author opted for this approach. I’ve listened to many people over the last few years complaining how they re-fi’d their modest homes to carry triple the original debt and then complain as the perceived value sinks beneath the horizon. One man told me with disgusted disbelief in his voice that “the banks are trying to tell me that I owe $450,000 when the house next door sold for $110,000. Now that’s nerve.” I did not point out to him that he’d re-fi’d several times and taken out over $300,000 in new mortgages. Where did that money go? No one switched mortgages on this fellow. He signed the papers and took the dough. Anyway the god-whatever-being-you-worship model meshes with the idea that the devil makes us do bad things which rather allows us to step from personal responsibility and lean on temptation/wickedness. For this reader, the bubble was all about stepping away from personal responsibility & putting off the day of reckoning: the banks that agreed to fishy loans, the lenders who fudged income, the financial wizards who advised people to re-fi and “invest,” and the experts who now say that there was no way to predict the collapse.