King of the Mississippi

A Novel
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A biting, hilarious literary satire of war, business, and contemporary masculinity, set in the cutthroat-but-ridiculous world of management consulting

King of the Mississippi is an incisive, uproarious dissection of contemporary male vanity and delusion, centered around a "war" for dominance of a prestigious Houston consulting firm. On one side of the conflict is Brock Wharton, an old money ex-jock whose delight in telling clients to downsize is matched only by his firm conviction that people like himself deserve to run the world. On the other is Mike Fink, a newly hired wily former soldier trying to ride his veteran status to the top of a corporate world that lionizes "the troops" without truly understanding them. Brock and Mike are mortal enemies on sight, bitterly divided not only by background and class but by diametrically opposed (yet equally delusional) visions of what it means to "be a man." And as their escalating conflict spirals out of control, it will take them all the way from the hidebound boardrooms and gladiatorial football fields of Texas to the vapid and self-serving upper echelon of Silicon Valley, to the corporatized battlefield of Iraq, all the while serving as a ruthlessly funny takedown of the vacuity and empty machismo of corporate life and alpha-male culture in modern America.

Devastatingly witty, unapologetically scathing, and ultimately surprisingly moving, King of the Mississippi marks the arrival of a unique and scintillating new voice in American fiction, one that boldly punctures the myths of American manhood like no one has since the heyday of The Bonfire of the Vanities and American Psycho.

Praise

"I have trouble expressing the sheer joy of reading King of the MississippiNot only is this book funny, but it is serious funny, angry funny, insightful funny, wise funny, and just plain old-fashioned funny funny.  Stanley Elkin and Joseph Heller -- let me introduce you to Mike Freedman."
—TIM O'BRIEN, National Book Award-winning author of Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried

Mike Freedman is a brilliant satirist. King of the Mississippi is the best comic novel since Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim.”
—PHILIPP MEYER, Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of The Son and American Rust
 
"Mike Freedman's King of the Mississippi takes us on a wild and raucous ride through the "homefront" of contemporary America and the foreign front of "over there," shredding--to hilarious and usually wincing effect--the prevailing pieties of corporate and military culture. Freedman has a keen eye for the damning detail, a quick ear for the unctuous con, which makes him an ideal satirist/realist for our highly disturbed age. Joseph Heller, Terry Southern, Hunter S. Thompson, George Saunders, say hello to the newest member of the American Jesters club."
—BEN FOUNTAIN, author of National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
 
"In King of the Mississippi, Mike Freedman launches a surgical strike against the old school, old boy network of good ole boys: those masters of the universe who brought us Enron, Lehman Brothers, and (cough cough) President Donald Trump. Freedman’s satirical takedown of white male privilege, 21st Century Kleptocracy, and our forever war is a deeply entertaining tour of duty through America’s heart of darkness. From the boardroom to the battlefield, Freedman calls out the narcs and the poseurs, the warmongers who never leave the wire and have no skin in the game. King of the Mississippi is a comic cri de coeur and Mike Freedman the disarming leader of a dazzling new literary insurgency."
—AMBER DERMONT, author of the New York Times bestselling The Starboard Sea

“In this hysterical novel, Mike Freedman takes on the current and very serious military-civilian divide in a world-class satire from which no side emerges unscathed. Read it; laugh and learn.
—KARL MARLANTES, author of the New York Times bestselling Matterhorn and What It Is Like To Go To War
 
“The points of reference in America’s literary heritage for Mike Freedman’s King of the Mississippi are in some ways clear and compelling, from Twain to Heller and beyond. But in a very real way they do Freedman an injustice. Reading this book I found all the comparisons falling quickly away. He is an American original. King of the Mississippi weds dark hilarity and deep seriousness in ways that are, it seems to me, uniquely born from this apocalyptic era we have now entered. This is a remarkable novel from a truly important young American writer.”
—ROBERT OLEN BUTLER, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain and Perfume River
 
"King of the Mississippi is a terrific war novel set in the aftermath of Iraq. Distinguish yourself and buy it now.” 
WINSTON GROOM, Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of Forrest Gump and El Paso
 
"Mike Freedman writes with a distinct sensibility.  His new novel King of the Mississippi throbs with humor and American exuberance."
—HA JIN, National Book Award-winning author of Waiting and The Banished Immortal

There are echoes of Kingsley Amis and Joseph Heller in this remarkable novel, but Mike Freedman’s voice is entirely his own. And a darkly funny voice it is as he wields his satire like a rapier to puncture any number of today's sacred piñatas. Mike Fink, a mythic character on the early American frontier, returns in the body of an eponymous, though metaphorical, descendant to raise holy hell in the boardrooms of America's oligarchs, and in a wild twist, on the battlefields of Iraq.”
—PHILIP CAPUTO, National Book Award finalist and author of A Rumor of War and Acts of Faith

"Through the lens of Green Berets and corporate war-rooms, Mr. Freedman offers a sharp, witty look at dueling American ideologies with his novel King of the Mississippi. A deftly-woven story that questions societal notions of success and hard work, readers will recognize both their better selves and their most intimate shortcomings as Brock Wharton and Mike Fink battle for new commissions and established business as high-flying consultants from Houston, Texas. Full of laughs and hard truths, the seams of society itself are at stake and we are left with a current, comedic triumph to celebrate." 
—ROSS RITCHELL, Special Operations veteran and author of The Knife

Excerpt

1.

The King Declares

“Not everyone is meant to be a CCGer,” Brock Wharton said to himself as much as to the staffer who fumbled with the applicant folders.

Great consultants mastered the management of time. The muggy fall day that would usher the war home to the future managing director of Cambridge Consulting Group had commenced, like any other for change agent Brock Wharton, on the fast track.

“Next up in the holding pen,” Carissa Barnett said, pulling a manila folder from the stack.

Holding pen. She had not been on the job five weeks and already acted as if she were a veteran consultant with a short attention span. Confidence was contagious at CCG, even for the support. Wharton conceded to himself that the new twenty-five-year-old recruiting coordinator did carry a disproportionally generous bosom on her slender frame, which was managed expertly--the old conceal and reveal--in her pairing of formal business suits with blouses his colleague Piazza labeled “plunging.” Wharton waited for her to set down the folder she held out for him, as she exaggerated multitasking with God-knows-what application on her new smartphone that had transferred none of its claimed intelligence to its owner. That Carissa ran the task force to recruit a wider collection of out-of-the-box thinkers troubled Wharton, who as a principal at CCG had pushed the initiative over the summer after feedback from a client critical of CCG’s junior-level consultants.

Seven of them sat erect in chairs in the four-walled glass room. From outside the fishbowl, their conversation buzzed like a horde of caught flies against glass. All faked pleasantries with the other applicants while nervously hoping their newfound friends fell flat on their faces during the case interview. Although these seven applicants had done their first-round interviews at the smaller Dallas office, Wharton recognized a couple of the applicants from networking events the Houston office had sponsored. Five guys and two girls. Or was that six male applicants and one female applicant? Wharton studied the cropped hair and suit style of the suspect candidate. CCG was really leading the charge to beat McKinsey and Bain in their recruitment of the best and brightest from the LGBT community--though if pressed Wharton would be forced to admit that although he knew what the first two letters stood for, he wasn’t sure those belonging to the third letter should have their own category, and was still confused as to what the fourth letter represented in this “community.”

“Topper.” Wharton read the first name at the top of the résumé aloud and waited to gauge the manner in which he rose. The tall candidate was an easy read for the ex-quarterback. The burgundy tasseled Ferragamo loafers with yacht-stitch detail, though not on the level of Wharton’s bespoke shoes, were a touch of class by Topper Musgrave IV. He wore a practiced smile (to match the sheen of light mousse he put in his hair) as easily as he wore a tight-fitting, European-cut suit favoring his athletic build. On the older side of applicants, he was close to Wharton’s age of thirty-three. Wharton predicted that within a year of starting, Musgrave would be on the website and in company recruiting literature under the caption For me, CCG is not only about developing the strengths you have but also about growing intellectually in a field where the learning never stops. His was an image cut from the Brock Wharton Catalog for out-of-the-box thinkers.

Wharton led Musgrave down the all-white hallway to put him through the obligatory case interview. “How was the flight from New York?”

“Nothing quite like coming back home to Houston from the city.” Wharton understood this code-speak: I can play with the big boys on Wall Street, but I have chosen to return home and be a big fish in a small pond. Wharton liked the play. Wharton had benefited from comprehending the big-picture value of leveraging his fading status as a hometown hero. In New York, he would have joined the mile-long list of ex-athletes turned traders and bankers. But in the good-ole-boy network of Houston, Wharton was the marlin hung on the office wall.

Inside his office, Wharton allowed Musgrave to take in the football given to Wharton by the Houston Texans on draft day that was mounted on its own wall. On the other wall hung his framed University of Texas jersey from the Holiday Bowl. Next to it was his Harvard Business School degree encircled by a bright, crimson-colored frame to achieve a layered effect juxtaposed with the majestic Longhorn dehydrated orange. Never one who was much for the aesthetics of interior design, Wharton adhered to a guiding principle of honoring achievement.

After sufficient time had passed for Musgrave to be intimidated but composed, Wharton put the résumé down and examined the applicant’s features for signs of awe or reverence. No wrinkles on the field under the perfectly stationary, coifed brown hair or above the thin eyebrow trails; big hazel eyes dialed in on the prize; the symmetrical nose and ears showing no genetic slight. Only born assurance. A familiar face stared back at Wharton in the award-winning pedigree of Musgrave: here was a CCG man.

Wharton began, “I usually begin a decision-round interview by providing the candidate with a face to put with our international reputation of excellence and seventy worldwide offices. Then I will ask you a few questions about your background to get to know your story, allowing you to walk me through your résumé. After which time we will proceed to the case portion of the interview, and then wrap up with any questions you might have. Sound good?”

“Sounds great.”

Wharton motioned to his football jersey upon concluding a brief internal debate to lend his own face as the best example. “When my football career ended in injury before my first NFL preseason, I asked myself, ‘What other challenges are out there for a game-changer in life, Brock?’ At first glance, it was investment banking. Which I did here in town at arguably the best bulge-bracket investment bank for four years--logged a lot of hours and got up to speed on everything I thought there was to know about business. But it was while learning the case-study method at Harvard Business School that I realized a well-trained monkey can perform the functions in banking.” Since Musgrave, a native Houstonian, had opted for Wall Street, Wharton decided to forgo his polemic on oil and gas as unnecessary; he calculated he was not alone in his derision of the industry as not meeting the ambitions of someone of their talent level. “It was that epiphany--which came to me during the twenty-fifth mile of the Boston Marathon--that made me realize consulting was the only place in the business world that provided a daily intellectual challenge for the extreme competitor in life. If you’re a competitor, you will never be bored and your future is limitless at CCG.” Wharton stopped to point at Musgrave and asked with a turn of the palm up to show the oyster that could be held there, “In what other job in the world can a recent MBA graduate stand in front of a Fortune 500 CEO and tell him how to fix his company? So, Topper, why do you wish to be a part of CCG?”

“Because it’s the best. And it can grow further.”

“Further,” Wharton said, wrapping his tongue around the length of the word approvingly, in the manner of a python encountering a small mammal.

“Houston was the number one city in job creation at three hundred and nine percent this past year. It’s about to overtake Chicago as the third-largest city in the country. This is the downtown where I wish to log my future late nights.”

Directed by this exhortation to his lectern, the future mayor asserted, “It’s not just an oil town.”

“My grandfather used to say, ‘Oil is a commodity you own, not something that defines you.’ ” Musgrave did not have to spell out for Wharton that his grandfather had uttered the platitude as a cabinet member in President George H. W. Bush’s one-term administration.

“You can’t be inimitable if you float on the same rising tide as all boats,” Wharton crowed, now rehearsing his speech as the first Mr. Houston recipient who would reject the celebration of oil--in his case, as not celebratory enough of his own distinguished talents, any industry that ultimately derived its success from the luck of drilling into the earth’s right spots. Where was the sport in that?

“At every stage in my life I’ve been the best, gone further. Whether it was graduating at the top of my class and still finding the intestinal fortitude to captain the basketball team at a little school in Boston, or serving as a leader after that by besting my peers on the trading desk.”

Little school in Boston. The competitor speech had sunk the hook deep in this billfish. “Captained at Harvard, eh?” Was it even necessary to insult this captain by asking him for a solution to a case study? The rest of the interview would be better spent shooting clays. What a joy it would be to open the gate for such a competitor. To hit him with a tight spiral in the end zone during the Consulting Bowl. Even the future king of a city needed his lieutenants.

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