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Originally published Saturday, April 16, 2011 at 7:01 PM

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Book review

In first novel, Seattle's Peter Mountford takes a dazzling trip to Bolivia

Seattle debut novelist Peter Mountford takes a dazzling trip to Bolivia in "A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism."

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Peter Mountford

The author of "A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism" will read at 5 p.m. May 7 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com) and 3 p.m. May 15, at Eagle Harbor Books on Bainbridge Island; free (206-842-5332 or

www.eagleharborbooks.com).

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'A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism'

by Peter Mountford

Mariner, 289 pp., $15.95

Debut novels don't come much savvier, punchier or more entertaining than Seattle author Peter Mountford's "A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism."

The book lives up — brilliantly, scathingly — to its title, as it explores the tricky junctures where American power collides with Third World native interest.

Mountford's country of choice is Bolivia, and the time is late 2005. Evo Morales is poised to become the first indigenous leader of a Latin American nation, and with his likely election, the billion-dollar question is: Does Morales really mean it when he says he'll expropriate foreign gas-extraction operations in Bolivia upon coming into power, thus steering their profits into Bolivian coffers rather than overseas hands?

Trying to answer that question is Mountford's personable but deeply flawed anti-hero, 27-year-old Gabriel Francisco de Boya. Gabriel is a freelance journalist, newly arrived in La Paz to cover the election. Or else he's working for BellSouth. Or maybe he's with a do-gooding investment firm, offering advice on solar energy and eco-tourism.

The truth of who Gabriel is and what's he doing depends entirely on who's hearing it. His mother, an exile from Pinochet's Chile and now a "liberal firebrand" frequently quoted by the left-leaning press, gets one story. Veteran journalist Fiona Musgrave, whose "boy toy" Gabriel is, gets another. His more serious girlfriend Lenka Villarobles, who happens to be Morales' press liaison, gets still another.

Only Gabriel's boss in New York (also female) knows that he's in Bolivia to find a way for his employer — a hedge fund with a reputation for "Terminator-esque pursuit of gains" — to profit from the political groundswell for Morales.

In the book's publicity materials, Mountford says he once wrote about economics for a think tank in Ecuador, where he got his own introduction to shady corporate dealings when his name turned up as "senior associate" for a hedge fund he'd never heard of. It turned out it was operating on the sly out of the think tank's back office.

In Gabriel, Mountford has cooked up a character who has a more "comfortable way with deceit" than his creator, and comes in just the right package ("bilingual and of indeterminate ethnicity") to be a lot of things to a lot of people. More than one woman in his life finds Gabriel "pretty." But to the reader fully clued into his activities, he seems more like a dewy puppy who, eagerly lapping up corruption and rationalizing his motives every step of the way, starts taking on pit-bull qualities.

The women in his life — and, oh brother, does this guy live in a woman's world! — are as complexly shaded and contradiction-filled as Gabriel (whose Russian dad stuck around only long enough to engender him). While that lends the narrative a tone of farce, Mountford couldn't be more serious about unveiling the way multinational corporate maneuvers often "reside in the gray areas of legality."

Even the smartest players in this game, Gabriel soon realizes, are hard-pressed to say what's really going on or who's controlling the outcome: "In matters of economics, if the answer seemed straightforward, you weren't looking closely."

Combine that with Gabriel's bedroom shenanigans and his tricky relations with his mother (the claustrophobic closeness of being the only child of a single mom is evoked with a strangely barbed tenderness), and you have a narrative that dazzles on several levels.

The cinching pleasure of the book is how vividly Mountford brings the Bolivian administrative capital to life. Even his physical descriptions are packed with telling sociological detail: "Because of its altitude [12,000 feet], La Paz had an upside-down layout. In most cities, the wealthy inhabited the peaks, and the poor pooled in the valleys. But in La Paz, the rich filled the deepest ravines, where the altitude was less oppressive, while the shantytowns were splashed on frigid, windblown perches."

"Guide" is the work of an extraordinary talent.

Michael Upchurch is an arts writer for The Seattle Times.

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