By Lou Carlozo
CHICAGO, April 20 (Reuters) - Since T.S. Eliot's brief career at Lloyds Bank of London, the connections between banking and literature have remained tenuous at best - especially when you narrow the focus to the genre of "banking-related fantasy novel parodies."
But that did not stop Paul Erickson, a laid-off trainer of tellers and personal bankers for Washington Mutual, from taking an inspired crack at hilarity with "The Wobbit: A Parody." With the novel, the 52-year-old from Oak Park, Illinois, twists J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" in a financial funhouse mirror: the dwarves come courtesy of characters he met while training at a variety of financial institutions, including WaMu.
The bank's collapse in 2008 constitutes such an epic tale that people still talk about it four years later. "Washington Mutual was the poster child for the banking crisis," said Richard Barrington, a senior finance analyst for MoneyRates.com. "It was the one that got everybody's attention - the public and the bank regulators."
Erickson did not base his Tolkien retake on a blow-by-blow account of the WaMu debacle, "but 'The Hobbit' is an allegory, and it's kind of fitting someone would (find inspiration) in Washington Mutual," Barrington said. "It was a cautionary tale, and not in abstract way."
With more than 6,000 e-books in circulation, "The Wobbit" currently ranks 43rd in Amazon.com's ranking of parodies. But that could soon change with Peter Jackson's film "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" due out in December; Erickson hopes to exploit the fortuitous tie-in to the fullest. (Jackson is filming two "Hobbit" movies back-to-back, the second to be released in 2013; Erickson is working on another Tolkien parody: "Superfriends of the Ring.")
Soon after "The Wobbit" went on Amazon, it caught the attention of Carsten Polzin, an editorial director at Piper Verlag in Munich, Germany. His company now plans to release a German-language edition, and has more ambitious plans for "The Wobbit" as the release of Jackson's film draws near, including the possible sale of English-language rights in North America and elsewhere.
"I instantly liked Erickson's style and prose; very funny and yet respectful for Tolkien's masterpiece," said Polzin. Nor did the use of bankers as Hobbits throw him. "It's most impressive how well they fit in to the story. One wonders how Tolkien could've done without them."
Typical Tolkien parodies are "a whole lot of jokes about Scottish accents and Oscar Wilde," said Erickson, who first read "The Hobbit" as an adolescent. "I kind of went in an entirely different direction. It was largely 'write what you know.'" There's also the sense of history involved, obscure as it is; Erickson's "Wobbit" is the first parody of a Tolkien book to use bankers as the main protagonists and antagonists, coming courtesy of a laid-off banker.
In his five years at WaMu, he was surrounded by numerous creepy creatures. The Bilbo Baggins character ("Bulbo Bunkins") is recast as a laid-off bank teller who journeys across a recession-plagued "Little Earth." Bunkins' mission: "to steal a resentful dragon's treasure and restore the economy."
"Dwarves, as Tolkien portrays them, are cranky, cheap and hierarchical guys - and everybody's related to somebody else," Erickson said. "And I thought, 'Well you know, that kind of sounds like banking.' So it was really easy to write that way."
The question is, can a profession so devoid of humor actually generate enough funny material for a parody novel? Kevin J. Williams, an MBA and former investment banker who now works in the comedy world, thinks so. He has written about the comedy-banking connection for no less than the Harvard Business Review, and likes what he has read of Erickson's book.
"A parody of hobbits that are bankers is a great thing," said Williams, 36. "First of all, I actually worked with some bankers that physically looked like hobbits. And using parody as a tool to disarm or make sense of an industry or profession is definitely a healthy thing. If we lose our ability to do that, we lose our capacity to reflect."