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Originally published Sunday, January 26, 2014 at 3:04 AM

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‘The Dismal Science’: a dark brew of angst and economics

Seattle author Peter Mountford’s simmering new novel, “The Dismal Science,” looks at what happens when a recently widowed World Bank administrator gets embroiled in Latin American politics. Mountford will appear at a book-launch party Feb. 13 at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Peter Mountford

The author will host a book-launch party for “The Dismal Science” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13, at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave.; free (206-322-7030 or

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‘The Dismal Science’

by Peter Mountford

Tin House Books, 230 pp., $15.95

The Scottish philosopher and writer Thomas Carlyle first referred to economics as a “dismal” scientific pursuit in the 19th century. But after reading Seattle author Peter Mountford’s simmering new novel about the underside of global finance, “The Dismal Science,” one might come away believing that the expression should apply to an even darker and more vexing endeavor — self-examination.

In this follow-up and, in a way, companion to Mountford’s celebrated debut novel, “A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism,” middle-aged and recently widowed World Bank administrator Vincenzo D’Orsi slowly unravels, destroying just about every personal and professional relationship he has in the process

It is 2005 and Vincenzo, an Italian who works as a vice president at the Washington D.C.-based financial institution in charge of its Latin America division, is being pressured by a bank official to cut aid to Bolivia. The country is poised to elect socialist politician and former coca farmer Evo Morales, who’s threatening to nationalize the country’s lucrative natural gas industry, a move that worries many in Washington.

But Vincenzo recoils, eventually stirring up a scandal about the matter in the press. The move costs him his job and jeopardizes his professional ties. Vincenzo is in the grip of more than a career crisis. A few years earlier, his wife, Cristina, was struck and killed while crossing a street in Washington, leaving him and his college-age daughter Leonora to muddle through their rather strained relationship.

It’s hard to escape the suspicion that Vincenzo is mired in depression over the loss of his wife, steeped in a mourning that never quite resolved itself after her untimely death. But even he can see that something else is going on.

Mountford, current writer-in-residence at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House, leads us through Vincenzo’s decline with prose that is as gray and fraught with angst as a Seattle day in early winter. Even with a life crisis around every corner, this can’t possibly be “the end of the line” for Vincenzo, as he cryptically thinks to himself at one point. There has to be a new, happier chapter.

With “The Dismal Science,” Mountford revisits the country where his celebrated debut novel, “A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism,” is set. Bolivian politics might seem like an obscure fascination, but Mountford became familiar with the country while writing about economics in neighboring Ecuador for a think tank.

Morales wins the presidential election and Vincenzo, admired in Bolivia for what they see as his bold stand against World Bank meddling in developing countries, accepts an invitation to Bolivia to help celebrate with Walter, his journalist friend and partner-in-scandal. Like everything else in Vincenzo’s life, it doesn’t go according to script. Always the rational one in his family, Vincenzo is now letting impulse and raw emotion get the upper hand. His shopping spree at a Williams Sonoma is one for the books.

“Life was so geometric at times, the pieces fit so neatly that it was hard to imagine that there were not Gods orchestrating the show,” Mountford writes. If so, the Gods are having a field day shattering and rearranging Vincenzo’s life, teaching him “the stark reality, the abject arbitrariness and stupidity of the world, that life was an insult to everyone’s plans.”

“The Dismal Science” won’t necessarily fill you with optimism. But its exploration of a man who can’t seem to find his way out of a darkness partly of his own making has a beauty that is as delicate as the fleeting hope in Vincenzo’s story.

Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.

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