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Books  |  Reviews

Skin in the Game by R.P. Finch

Wages of skin

May 7, 2013  |  3:00pm
<i>Skin in the Game</i> by R.P. Finch

Once upon a time, I published a first novel, Land O’ Goshen. After the book appeared, the days clicked happily by, little falling golden dominoes. Only one thing made me flinch a little in the satisfaction of that time—a surprising number of eager readers gave congratulations with the same well-intentioned first comment:

I loved your book. I hope they make a movie out of it.

I nodded my head and pretended I felt this same enthusiasm. Really, though, my thought balloon said something like:

A movie? Well … this is a book. A BOOK! It’s already better than a movie! It makes its own movie, right inside your head…

I share all this, good reader, to acknowledge the hypocrisy of my following first comment on Robert Finch’s debut novel:

I hope they make a movie out of it.

Skin in the Game bounds straight in from central casting. We get CIA spooks, the mob, strippers, hustlers … and, perhaps most lowly, Wall Street lawyers. In fact, Finch’s gimlet eye and ear for lawyerspeak, lawyerthink and lawyerese puts sails to his wild plot. His crackpot, flaky characters tickle us. So do his sentences.

Witness Tito Venga, black turtleneck and blazer, and Orinda, his employee. Tito owns a strip club. Orinda dances. She arrives in the buff in Tito’s office for a talk. We overhear a career crisis:

“… I’ve had it with these scumbags.” She found the sound of her foot stomping the gritty linoleum disappointing.
“Scumbags with wallets,” he said and tapped his cigar over a hubcap. “Listen, I got a theory there’s no lifestyle that is perfect in this universe.” His cigar hand smoothed his hair where it swept back on the side, tested it in front where it was oiled and mounded.
“Tito, this place doesn’t even have windows.”
“Windows? Look, I been entrepreneuring all over the place and I know you belong on that stage.” Music stripped of everything but the beat penetrated his office wall. “You are what we in the adultainment biz call a natural. Sit down.”
Orinda lowered herself onto the cold edge of the pink plastic sofa. “Newsflash, Tito – that’s not a stage, that’s a zoo. Some bottom-feeder out there is looking at me through his fingers.” She fanned hers open before her eyes.
“So?”
“So he’s wearing surgical gloves. And not any too clean.” A shiver riffed her spine. “I love you, Tito, all you done for me, but I have hit the wall.”
“Bounteous curves plus smart intelligent eyes. Nice retro bush, kinda quaint, trimmed but not to excess – which sets you apart these days, babe, like some sorta trademark. You’re looking real fine.”
“Forget it, Tito, I already put out some feelers.”
“But we got plenty of feelers right here.”
She rose with an adhesive sound. “And a new sofa wouldn’t kill you.”

This first-time novelist Robert Finch, I’m telling ya … the friggin’ cat can write comedy, and he can dream up the kind of plot that Mel Brooks and Woody Allen could collaborate into the greatest movie ever made about quantum physics and legal-firm inhouse politics.

Finch owns the intellectual property of this book, and he comes by it honestly—he worked for 25 years as a (mostly) mergers and acquisition lawyer for an Atlanta firm before pirouetting away onto the thin ice of novel writing. The career transition surely had an underlying philosophy—Finch earned a Ph.D. from Duke in philosophy before he transformed, possibly like a werewolf, into a lawyer. Or the author may simply have played eyewitness to enough shenanigans in his legal work to supply a good plot or two. John Grisham saw enough of the law, of course, to write a few legal thrillers. Finch may lay claim to his own genre—legal tickler.

His plot? Eben Burnham, a newbie in a law firm bearing his family name—generations of his forefathers built the practice—seeks a new area of law in which to distinguish himself. He’s a self-absorbed sort, constantly musing on quantum physics, a realm with its own strange law practices. The strangeness and improbability of quantum physics, in fact, consistently serves as an analog to events in Finch’s pages.

Eben contacts a brilliant research-nerd friend who just happens to be working on a solution to the problems of building computers that operate on principles of quantum physics. Any breakthrough means big money, since in theory the quantum device brings a huge upside in crunching numbers and sheer computing power. BUT … as things develop, an unscrupulous old grasping evil cheating bastard senior law partner (pardon redundancy) wants to steal Eben’s potentially lucrative practice area, and so inserts himself into proceedings.

Soon, two very different parties vie to buy into the nanotech start-up young Eben will represent. The CIA wants its technology. So does the mob.

Finch paints in a love interest for Eben. Ellie is a sparkling redhead with money. Nothing much ever comes of their possible romance, though, since Eben seems to have more of a head for figures than … well, a head for figures. Eben also has a junior associate, Wolf, who bears a grudge toward the lawyerly world and shows no compunctions about biting—viciously—the hand that feeds him.

Throw this all into a comic blender, and out comes Skin in the Game.

The requisite Reviewer Quibble comes about this point even in a positive review. Sometimes, Finch proves too clever by half, mainly in repeat scenes where sexual double-entendres fly thick as in a Shakespearean comedy. A complicated plot also means complicated explanations one character must impart to the next. Those belabor the page-turning in places.

But …

This first novel brings cinematic scenes and personages, like quantum froth, into full existence. Skin sweats its own wicked life. You won’t forget a TV-ready bargaining session between Tito and a mobster, this held on a Ferris wheel in an abandoned amusement park, the wheel turning and turning until the deal gets done.
And the dialogue pops. Hear Tito again, brainstorming on how to take his strip-club business to the next level:

“I am always busy working, in as far as I am always thinking. Just for example, this brainstorm that came to me like something that might come to you if you had went to business school. There I was the other night, ringside, scouting boxers for some friends looking for fresh meat, fresh talent, and all of a sudden this idea, it hits me.”
“Like from business school?” asked Orinda.
“Yeah, I’m drinking my coffee ringside, see, thinking about how all these new coffee places have this ‘la-dee-da marketing’ – that’s the term I coin – that lets them charge eight, nine bucks for a cuppa joe. It’s all these fancy names! The name’s the thing! You got your cappuccino, your mochaccino, your frappafuckinccino, and also they even got a fancy name for the folks behind the counter that stand around, fill your cup. Gives them airs of professionalism, am I right? Barristers or something.”
“Baristas,” said Wolf.
“Yeah yeah, Baristas, so listen – I had this vision that we start calling the Babes ‘Vaginistas’ – how about that! Instant class at no cost, we can up our cover charge and the price for drinks and also lap dances. ‘Vaginistas’ – instant margin!” His hands flew into the air as if he were a magician’s assistant.

Ridiculous. Incorrect. Outrageous. But stuff that sticks in memory like a cocklebur.

I hope they make a movie or a TV series out of it.

Shrewd Tito, played by James Gandolfini, will be an icon for prime time. I suggest Naomi Watts (add henna please) for Ellie, and someone new, a fresh acting face, for Eben. Maybe Tyler Hansbrough, the NBA star with the perpetually stunned expression.

HBO, you listenin’?

Finch is the author’s name.

Not Atticus. Robert P.

You’ll hear more of it.

Charles McNair gleans the fields of literature as Books Editor for Paste. His newest novel, Pickett’s Charge, publishes August 31.

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