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The Hunger of the Wolf

02/11/2015 08:40 am ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

2015-02-11-Hungerofthewolfstephenmarche.jpgThe Hunger of the Wolf is a novel about the new class of billionaires that are emerging, and about their glorious and tortured lives which are shaped almost entirely by the forces of money. Spanning from the mills of Depression-era Pittsburgh to the Swinging London of the 1960s, from desolate Alberta to the factories of present-day China, it's the story of the Wylies, worth about twenty-seven billion dollars, how they made that money and the way they live now: in a lonely world defined by family secrets and the number of zeroes at the end of a number.

The following is excerpted from "The Hunger of the Wolf," available now from Simon & Schuster.

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Hunters found his body naked in the snow. Peter and Samuel Seguin, Cree brothers who drove from Tamaskan to North Lake every February to shoot moose, stumbled on Ben Wylie in a small clearing of aspens at the end of an abandoned lumber road, his corpse encircled by curiously hesitant ravens. "We were all, like, pow, because he was naked and it was cold and he was just a man to us. We didn't know what it was that we were looking at," Samuel Seguin told the reporter from Bloomberg. Only after they had delivered up the body would the brothers learn that the man in the snow, far from being nobody, was the eighth-richest person in the world. Curled naked in the killing cold lay twenty-seven billion dollars.

The Seguins could never have recognized Ben Wylie. Through discipline and money, he had willed himself into irrelevance. By 2009, his photograph hadn't appeared in a newspaper for twenty-one years and business pages rarely feature stories about the Wylie companies despite their enormous size. Wealth of the Wylie magnitude, money on the scale of small governments fashioned from the profitable organization of hundreds of thousands of people, can grant itself the power of invisibility, fading into the fabric of everyday life. Capitalism can be good, proper, brutal fun, the biggest schoolyard game in the world. Some kids take all the candy and some kids lose eyes and other kids run home crying. But WylieCorp is too big to be fun. Even the death of the owner warranted, in the judgment of the world's capital-allotment, less than a half-point drop in its stock price.

The obituarists had to splay their quarter pages with Ben's grainy appearance at a shareholder's meeting in 1988--more like Bigfoot in the swamps than a human being. The picture has always been a favorite of newspaper editors, particularly the older, more showoffishly jaded ones, with Ben in well-worn budget sneakers and a suit seemingly borrowed from a middle-management uncle. The most famous photograph of Ben's grandfather, Dale Wylie, caught him stooping for a sixpence on Fleet Street the day he purchased The Record of London in 1964--at that time the largest media deal in history. Ben's father, George Wylie, appeared at a public offering of bonds on the NYSE with a four-stitch tear down the back seam of his jacket. Ben's 1988 picture fit the well-established pattern of the legendary penny-pinching Wylies; he looked exactly like the scion of the world's cheapest billionaires.

The hustled, deadlined world tells only the stories it has told before. Rather than the mystery of Ben's death, the magical scene in the snow, the frost-shrouded, fetally coiled symbol revealed in the openness of a primeval clearing, the reporters ran with drudgery, the family pattern, the inheritance of melodramatic restraint. He died "in a freak hunting accident," Bloomberg mentioned before reciting the list of companies he had owned--another broken family remarkable for their garland of zeroes. The 0.0000001 percent.

Money can turn into everything but we can only turn into ourselves.

I met Ben Wylie in the aftermath of the 2008 market crash, as the value of the world seemed to have lowered forever, and crisis, as a term, was beginning to lose its ancient meaning, smoothing into an ordinary condition. I met him once, although I had known him, or believed that I had known him, my entire life.

The Wylies own a cottage near North Lake, a town in northern Alberta brimming with quiet judgment and rude health and stuck economically between lumbering and resorts, as if it can't quite make up its mind whether to frolic in the wilderness or to hack it to smithereens. The Canadian government, in the final land bonanza of 1917, granted Dale Wylie and his brother, Max, a complete section along the Peace River, and in 1937, Dale assumed eight thousand acres on the north side of North Lake, land so scarred by clear-cutting for the lumber mill in Tamaskan that the locals branded Dale a rich American idiot for the outlay of twenty dollars. Now, regrown into a private wilderness, the Wylie property, encompassing three lakes, amounts to a province within a province.

The Wylie cottage itself lacks ambition, at least by the standards of the pleasure domes to weekend warriordom which the Kublai Khans of our moment tend to fantasize for themselves. No Sea-doos or bouncing water trampolines here. Just a small dock for the floatplane, and two canoes by the water, birch bark canoes handcrafted by a local tribe of Dene. A Gothic fireplace, imported in blocks from a German castle, dominates the cottage interior, but otherwise the place is an ordinary Canadian cottage--maybe cleaner than most since a family in the area served as caretakers, trimming the edges of their lawns in the summer and shoveling the Alpine roof of billowy snowdrifts in winter, then in the spring cracking the windows against the cozy atavism of rot. For these infrequent services the local family, the Cabots, earned several thousand dollars a year, even if, that year, the Wylies never bothered to open the place. It was a good deal for that family.

I should know because that family was mine. North Lake was my home. My name is Jamie Cabot. It remains Jamie no matter what I do. I have tried to turn myself into James twice, first when I went away to university, and again when I went away to New York. Though I asserted my Jamesness both times, I inevitably drifted back to Jamie. Now I am resigned. Maybe when I'm sixty, it will change itself to Jim. My grandfather was a Jim Cabot, and one sweltering Depression day, he helped lay the foundation of the Wylies' cottage between snorts of homemade rum and pineapple juice. Later my mother straightened the doilies on the arms of their sofas. During my childhood, the Wylie family had a vague other-worldliness. I recall, as one of my earliest memories, their floater plane circling overhead in a delicate maple-seed half helix and then skimming, skipping like a stone over the drab lake water. Even as a child, four or five years old, that machine--so like a radio-operated toy--bred in me a sense of my remoteness, my status on the periphery of the world. There are still unnamed lakes in Canada, places marked with numbers because no one cares enough to entitle them. North Lake was such a place, a few random cottages strewn among the boulders and pines. Looking up into the pure overbearing sky at the elegant descending curve of the Wylie biplane, I knew I came from the north, the nothingness, the irrelevant truth.

As an adolescent, when my allowance hinged on how neatly I mowed their lawn, the Wylies were a chore. Or sometimes a lark. I would break into the cottage with my high school friends to drink and screw and listen to the cheesy, lovable collection of antique country records, all neatly filed in red milk crates. Hank Williams. The Carter Family. Johnny Cash before he became interesting. It was either the Wylie place or the quarry, where the chilling howls of distant wolves would sour our jokes, sliver into our make-out sessions, collapse our attempts at nonchalance with that truest sound, the howl.

My mother may never have mentioned the Wylies by name. I only remember her calling them "the family," as in "the family are coming up so you'd better go over and trim those hedges" or "I never hear if the family are coming to stay until they come to stay." My father called them "the Americans." I thought of them as "the money." Only when I left North Lake--on a Greyhound bus rather than a floatplane--only when I ran as far from home as I could run, intellectually and geographically and morally, did I begin to fathom their prominence. Nothing is stranger to me than the idea that people I know, even casually, matter. I was raised to irrelevance the way Catholics are raised to the Church. I know in my bones that life must be happening elsewhere.

The Wylies, to me, are like the close ringing of a bright bell, like my mother's voice calling me home across winter fields. They are lords of money, separated by a chasm from the new breed of plutocrats rising to rule us without so much as a suppressed sigh of debate, the new money with their ridiculous yachts and their continuous plastic surgeries and their bought-and-sold SuperPAC politicians who jangle like the spare change in a pimp's front pocket.The Wylies are more,much more. The Wylies are rich because they have seen a truth.

Balzac said that behind every great fortune is a great crime. If so, then the Wylies' crime has been the most human: the desire for growth, the hunger for more. They have never, at any point, been involved in any morally suspect businesses, and not for lack of opportunity. When they were media moguls, they refused to trade favors with politicians. Though they were at the forefront of on-demand television and digital media, they never dabbled in pornography. They have never bought a company to raid its pension fund. If they buy a business, they mean it; they attempt to grow it.
They disdain power and charity, both. When Bill Gates asked the world's billionaires to promise half their wealth away, the Wylies were never asked and never offered. In an interview for Scottish television in 1963, Dale said straight out, "I am not a giving man. I believe that charity doesn't help anybody." His son George, twenty years later, was shocked when a friend who ran a well-digging charity in Africa sent back a check for a hundred dollars. Wasn't a hundred dollars a hundred dollars? Ben, who in his decade controlling the fortune gave away more every year than his father and grandfather during their combined lifetimes, resented every request.

But the Wylies' lack of charity isn't a meanness of spirit, as most outsiders assume. All three Wylie men share the same view of money. They believe in growth; they believe in a fair deal. Charity is a gift, and a gift is the flip side of theft. Given the violence nestled within them, the shame all three men swallowed down the long throat of their lives, their ethical scrupulence was doubly polished, extreme even. No wealthy family in the world has a cleaner conscience. No one's desperation is quieter. They give so little, they leave so little trace of themselves, not out of humility but out of a kind of intergalactic pride. They are wild men and, like all wild things, even their everyday struggles, the most ordinary movement from moment to moment, for food, for sex, for protection, for comfort, for rest, hunger in all its inarticulate variety, rises as an inevitably failed testament against nothingness. Their fortune exposes the size of their terror, their vitality.

Many rich families, once they scrape their fortunes from the hinterland of the great American middle, drift to the coastal metropolises.The idle and indulged children wander to Los Angeles. New York swallows the ambitious. The well-maintained antique women, displaced by trophy wives or sailboats, redecorate flats in London cyclically. The Wylies have always stayed in a somewhat decrepit mansion in Champlain, Pennsylvania, now a suburb of Pittsburgh, or the cottage in North Lake. Rust or Alberta.

The meaning of the Wylies grew and shifted the farther I wandered from North Lake. Struggling in New York, staring through the various windows of the world, half broken by my envy for all that I couldn't have, I would look at all the people I could never be and think, "You're not as rich as the Wylies, are you?" I was proud, if you can imagine such stupidity, of their wealth--the crookedness of our local lives is limitless. Why had they come to North Lake? That question never occurred to me. Why American billionaires, from Pennsylvania, would cross the continent and the border for a summer home somehow seemed to require no explanation.

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Stephen Marche is a columnist for Esquire Magazine and the author of The Hunger of the Wolf.