In the not-too-distant-future, the rich ride private jets while the middle class exists on an economic tight wire. The stakes: a disastrous fall into credit ruin, after which access to steady work, the corporately funded schools, housing, and even healthcare is essentially nonexistent. Bands of these financial exiles roam America in their derelict SUVs, eagerly taking day labor when they can find it and continually being routed from their makeshift camps by privately funded police forces. But when a leader emerges from the ranks of the subprimes, the vagrants’ miserable lot finally has a chance to metamorphose into something good, if not opulent. Mysterious savior Sargam advocates fair treatment and financial liberty, but will the system allow her to survive? Or will a giant, televangelist-backed oil rig mow down her followers before the world’s hungry eyes?
To call The Subprimes political is probably a bit of an understatement. If you consider global warming one of your key issues, you’ll enjoy the book’s atmosphere, which is stiflingly hot and choked with smog. If you rooted for Occupy Wall Street, even quietly, you’ll probably like the big showdown. But, even for a satire, The Subprimes is abrasive. Strangers to Greenfeld’s liberal philosophy may feel roughly used by his heavy-handed moralism and by immediate, unrelenting immersion into a world where capitalism, backed by big-business Christianity, has plunged everyone into an earthly facsimile of Hell. It’s hard to imagine this aggressive style winning many converts.
But the book’s greatest weaknesses also shine as its selling points. The intensity of the subprimes’ desperate world give it an urgency that is recognizable to anyone who has had to scrimp over the past ten years. Though the book takes trends like privatization and big business tax breaks to the extreme, they are recognizable as caricatures of the evils of our own world. The utter hostility of Greenfeld’s America is plausible and his writing chops support it. It takes a fine writer to weave humor into coyote attacks and debt rehabilitation camps, and, believe it or not, Greenfeld often pulls it off. The book’s cautiously optimistic conclusion helps to redeem its bleakness, and in doing so, it leans heavily on the older, kinder roots of the televangelist villain’s twisted spirituality. The final chapters suggest a softer message than the first two thirds of the book: that there is good buried deep beneath the oil rigs and the busting markets and the tracts of foreclosed houses. That, after all, we may still be redeemed.