Oil is the Word

Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne (Harper Perennial)

“I’m not a sexy dancer despite my athletic skills.”

“To want what we have / To take what we’re given with grace…”  Larry John McNally

If only all 292 pages of Kapitoil were as entertaining as its first 130 pages, it would be an easy call to make this a highly recommended book.   But there seems to be a new virus going around, one that causes very good (and generally new) authors to write novels that begin like a house on fire, before sputtering out like a miniature flame easily dosed with a garden hose.   I Thought You Were Dead was a recent example of this, now joined in this non-envious genre by Kapitoil.   Still, don’t get me wrong, despite its flaws this novel by first-time Teddy Wayne is a bit of fun.

This is the story of one Karim Issar who comes to New York City from the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, circa 1999.   He’s a computer programming whiz who views himself as a talented racquetball player, despite the fact that the sport is out of favor by this date.   Karim is in the U.S. to work out Y2K solutions for Shrub Equities.   This is pretty boring work so Karim decides to spend his time creating the Kapitoil computer program.   Kapitoil uses news events to predict oil futures.   If it is successful, which it proves to be, Karim’s program will make an immense amount of money for his employer.

This set-up does not sound like the basis for a humorous story, but it is because Karim is an utterly literal person and his limited understanding of English phrases and slang often causes him to be confused.   For example, when a date tells him, “Let’s see if we can’t do it more often…”   He responds, “I would enjoy that.   But let us see if we can do it more often.”   Why Americans use negative terms like “can’t” when their intention is to be positive is completely puzzling to Karim.

Karim begins keeping a daily journal of unclear English terms with his definitions of what the words and phrases actually mean (His supervisor’s requests for a major league favor = a significant favor; buying a round = purchasing alcoholic drinks in bulk for several people).   Yet he’s often tempted to correct his co-workers’ grammatical mistakes.   When one says to him, “You tell me one million times”, he corrects her:  “You have told me one million times.”

Karim is such an alien to NYC culture that in reading this I was sometimes reminded of the role that Jeff Bridges played in the film Starman.   Seeing the confusing world of humans through the totally logical eyes of the Starman was highly entertaining and enlightening.   The same can be said for our protagonist in the first half of this novel.

The reader will soon guess, however, that the fun of following a befuddled if clearly brilliant Karim around the Big Apple is going to be diminished once his computer program proves to be successful.   Then the seriousness kicks in – and the fun quickly departs – because Karim has created something very valuable and there are many schemers who want to take him away from his goose that lays golden eggs.

Can Karim learn, in the space of just three months, who he can trust and who cannot be trusted?   How will he balance his need for acclaim and riches against a new girlfriend of a different culture (she’s Jewish) and less successful than he?   How will he address the needs of his beloved but ill younger sister – and his overly gruff widower father, back in Qatar.   It all winds up in an unexpected fashion, which this reviewer suspects will make many readers less than happy.

Kapitoil is a first fun and then serious tale of self-discovery.   At its conclusion, our protagonist has discovered who he is and what he values.   It is a morality play that is uniquely structured; entertaining and yet less than what it could have been.

Take Away:   Teddy Wayne has written a novel that reads like a teddy bear before it turns into an overly serious grizzly bear.   Let’s hope his next story is fun, fun, fun all the way through.

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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