Finished reading James Magnuson’s Windfall last week, as the sixth novel in my 100-novels reading project.
Windfall concerns the story of Ben Lindberg, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin who finds several coolers filled with a total of $7.5 million in an abandoned feedstore. The money is clearly drug money, or gotten illegally by some means or another, but, Ben, under financial strain as his wife Katy is finishing up her school and raising two kids, succumbs to the temptation of taking the money. The plot slowly evolves until Ben winds up battling the drug dealers whose money he’s taken.
Magnuson takes a middle-middle class man and thrusts him into a extreme situation. The plot of the thriller itself is about at the level of a made-for-TV movie cop show. No international intrigue, say, on the level of John Le Carre. However, the small scale thriller plot of Magnuson’s book serves its purpose: to show the effects that money has on people and, moreover, the effects lying has on a family. Throughout the novel Ben, a somewhat idealistic prof of Thoreau and Emerson, maintains a lie–he never tells his wife and family about the money until the end, when it’s too late, or almost too late.
After I finished reading the novel, I ran across the following passage by Jane Smiley in her book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (the book that inspired my 100-novel project). In the passage, Smiley is talking about Honore de Balzac and how he deals with money in his novels:
"In this sense [Balzac] is a quintessential realistic novelist, since nothing drives sentimentality out of a novel like exact sums of money, and monetary anxiety is a common feature of novel plots, both because the opposing temptations of greed and true feeling offer efficient moral choices for characters and because authors themselves are often writing for a living and pressed for money, and so monetary questions are interesting to them."
In Windfall, Lindberg lives with monetary anxiety and with his need to make a better life for his family. That need motivates his lie: It’s how he justifies to himself not telling his wife about the money, or making a show of it. He goes through emotions of what may be true for someone with such a dilemma, especially paranoia–the paranoia creates the climatic scenes in which Ben becomes forced to confront the drug dealers in order to rescue his daughter. And while he experiences fear and paranoia about taking the money and figuring out what to do with it, he never truly feels guilty about lying to his wife or his children. Even at the end, though he sort of regrets his lies (his family goes into the process of breaking up; his daughter feels deeply betrayed by him) he doesn’t seem to feel as if totally has to redeem himself to his family. He seems resolved to his fate of living alone, and in the end receives another smaller windfall from a student Daniel Sweeney, whom Lindberg gets involved with while trying to launder the money. (Sweeney steals the money in the end and gets away with the theft.) Lindberg comes out as something of a cold character at the end because he only half-heartedly tries to make a reconciliation with his wife and children.
It’s an interesting take Magnuson has regarding Lindberg’s windfall. At the end, it indeed makes the novel unsentimental, which to me is a relief, given that if this were a TV movie, it would be necessary somehow for Lindberg to reconcile with his wife and family. Probably a counselor or consultation with some insightful clergy would get inserted to keep the family together.