Company Men

Houston author Mike Freedman’s second satirical novel portrays the battlefield and the boardroom with delicious contempt.

Illustration/Sunny Sone

Houston author Mike Freedman’s second satirical novel portrays the battlefield and the boardroom with delicious contempt.

Illustration/Sunny Sone
David Duhr

It’s every American’s God-given right to self-mythologize, even to the point of absurdity. Take the current president (please): Donald Trump has somehow managed to package and sell himself as a swashbuckling working-class hero who clawed his way to the top against all odds. Other folk heroes keep quiet and let the mythology come to them. There’s a scene in Disney’s 1956 cash-grab Davy Crockett and the River Pirates in which the King of the Wild Frontier meets the self-anointed King of the River, buffoonish keelboatman Mike Fink. The slovenly Fink looks strong-jawed Crockett up and down and says,

“You’re about a foot shorter than you oughta be.” Crockett only smiles, allowing his sidekick to answer on his behalf: “Don’t worry; he’s still a-growin’.”

That growth spurt is over. But however tarnished the real Davy Crockett’s legacy has been by our contemporary recognition of him as a participant in unspeakable massacres of Native Americans, his legend still outlives that of the all-but-forgotten Fink.

<em>King of the Mississippi</em> by Mike Freedman Hogarth 256 pages; $26
King of the Mississippi
by Mike Freedman
Hogarth
256 pages; $26

But even the ugliest of folk heroes have a way of sticking around. Mike Fink is back, this time battling Davy Crockett on the frontiers of corporate consulting in Mike Freedman’s second satirical novel, King of the Mississippi.

Freedman’s Crockett is “extreme competitor” Brock Wharton, the quintessential white-male one-percenter. Born into the Houston elite, Wharton has been bred for physical and financial achievement gained at the expense of the weak, i.e., anybody who’s not Brock Wharton. After a stint as star quarterback at the University of Texas, Wharton brings his winner-take-all mentality to Houston’s top strategic management consulting firm, CCG, where the “change agent” stiff-arms his coworkers into submission en route to a preordained end zone: the Houston mayoralty.

Interviewing several men and “two girls” for an entry-level position, Wharton finds his slam-dunk choice: the well-coiffed Topper Musgrave IV, back in Houston after the obligatory tours of duty at Harvard Business School and Wall Street. “Here was a CCG man,” Wharton muses.

But cultural change stirs. Wharton’s worldview is developing a new name — toxic masculinity — and no longer do money, whiteness and a swinging dick guarantee dominance.

CCG management overrules Wharton and instead hires a boisterous ex-Special Forces soldier whose unpolished speech and mannerisms run counter to everything Wharton holds sacred. Hailing from what Wharton labels “the land of the lower class,” Mike Fink is the spitting image of his namesake and alleged ancestor.

With Fink, CCG hopes to cash in on what Wharton sees as “the nauseating resurgence of post-9/11 glorification” of veterans, the “inane rah-rah yellow-ribbon patriotism” that causes people to “stand up and clap for them at sporting events while nodding that the only reason the sport is even being played is because of heroes like them.”

Houston.
Houstonians will delight in Wharton’s ivory-tower meditations on the Bayou City.  Wikimedia/Henry Han

But while Fink shares Wharton’s disgust for such affected patriotism, most of Fink’s own contempt is reserved for “soft overbred scrubs” like Wharton, “whose weight I carried over there when I was the one staking it all.”

Naturally, Fink and Wharton immediately grapple for dominance at CCG. Fink launches his folk hero-like “insurgency” with a successful and, to Wharton, devastatingly embarrassing campaign in the boardroom of client Dr Pepper. Wharton’s “counterinsurgency” fails in the one place he’s still sure of himself, a football field, in a hilarious set piece at a corporate flag football game, where Wharton tries desperately, and unsuccessfully, to tackle Fink, his own teammate, to prevent Fink from throwing the winning touchdown pass. A “gutted” Wharton watches “Fink’s coronation as the CCG Alpha Male” — and so does a camera. The video, posted to social media under the title “Idiot vs. Teammate,” goes viral, and Wharton’s humiliation is complete.

Winner: Fink.

But just like in the Disney movie, Fink and Crockett must find a way to work together if they wish to survive their next mission — a consulting trip to the Iraqi wastelands, where the two warriors scheme to defy their implicit objective: to make rich Americans richer on the back of a broken, war-torn nation.

But is Mike Fink everything he claims to be, or has the truth been “buried in myths”?

King of the Mississippi is a busy book. Besides toxic masculinity, capitalism run amok and performative fawning over returning vets, Freedman tackles classism, sexism, racism, anti-Semitism and so much more. It’s a lot to take on, and not every theme has room to develop.

But that’s a minor quibble for a book that is consistently entertaining, insightful and spot-on in so many ways. Houstonians will delight in Wharton’s ivory-tower meditations on the Bayou City, and any reader familiar with the battlefield or the boardroom is sure to appreciate the delicious contempt with which Freedman portrays both. After three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with Special Forces and an MBA from Rice, he knows what he’s talking about.

Wharton and Fink are memorable characters, repugnant but frustratingly endearing. Freedman revels in exposing their faults, but he allows them space to change.

Because change they must. They represent a type of winning-obsessed male ethos that is jack-booting, even if in baby steps, toward the exit. By aligning Fink and Wharton with folk heroes, Freedman suggests their modern brand of machismo might someday become the stuff of folklore: celebrated by some, but ultimately obsolete.

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David Duhr is the Observer's copy editor.


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