"Odds Against Tomorrow" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Nathaniel Rich
Mitchell Zukor is a disaster waiting to happen — and waiting for disasters to happen to himself and the rest of us.
The lonely neurotic at the center of Nathaniel Rich's comically bleak novel, "Odds Against Tomorrow," is nervous for a reason. The recently graduated "quant" is good with numbers and not so good with people, prompting him to come up with probabilities for all kinds of worst-case scenarios in his spare time.
The chances of dying in an elevator accident? Just one in 10.44 million. Dying from the bite of a dog carries about the same risk. That makes it easier for Mitchell to stop taking the stairs and ride the elevator to his office on the 75th floor of the Empire State Building. (He still crosses the street if a dog is in his path.)
From that perch high above Manhattan he crunches numbers for a financial giant, in one case to arrive at what it would cost the company if it were to suffer a catastrophe on the order of a building collapse.
Then a slogan in an online ad catches his attention: "Find out what the future will cost you." It belongs to FutureWorld, a startup that helps companies survive the aftermath of a catastrophe — when people rise from the rubble and sue.
Not that FutureWorld protects against disasters. It advises companies on what could happen, then serves as a scapegoat should disaster actually strike. FutureWorld provides a bulwark to charges of negligence. A limited liability statute slipped into state law protects FutureWorld from civil lawsuits.
"Everyone wins," a purveyor of the diabolical and moneymaking scheme assures Mitchell. "In a matter of speaking."
Mitchell turns into the perfect salesman for FutureWorld. The panicky nerd not only researches terrible possibilities — nuclear wars, bird flu pandemics and terrorism are just part of his repertoire — he also presents them to clients with a frightening earnestness. It's a highly prized skill when a hurricane bears down on New York City, a potential rainmaker for Mitchell in more ways than one.
What will the future end up costing Mitchell Zukor? That's one scenario he doesn't envision.
The Cold War film "Dr. Strangelove" poked horrible fun at the idea of surviving a nuclear war. In a similar vein, "Odds Against Tomorrow" draws its subtle, cutting humor from a post-Sept. 11 world in which two out of five people worry about a relative being a victim of terrorism when the actual risk is astronomically low. Potential disaster has become another product that just needs the right marketing to sell to an uneasy public that ought to know better.
Rich wryly observes human anomalies as he spins out the story of a smart young man who finds comfort in what he knows — even if it's fear and panic. Sound familiar?
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of "Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks" (University of Wisconsin Press).