Review by Dorn Townsend
By Adam Gittlin
Oceanview Publishing, 442 pages, $24.95
At last, a thriller set in the world of commercial real estate brokers. The hero is not a spy, detective or law enforcement officer, but a hard-boiled and resourceful Manhattan broker.
He’s hired by a Russian conglomerate looking for New York office towers as a way to diversify assets. On the surface, this sort of assignment should come easily to Jonah Gray, one part of a four-member team that competes for lucrative deals. Yet the half-billion-dollar offer comes with two significant caveats: The proceedings must be confidential, and the Russians need to wrap up the transaction in less than three weeks.
These provisos set Jonah and his team off on a hectic adventure. Each member of his team must identify and woo separate, and sometimes reluctant, property owners. Jonah’s attempt to pull together his buyout proposal becomes complicated when, at a wedding in the Hamptons, someone slips him legendary — and recently stolen — Russian jewels.
As author Adam Gittlin describes it, elite Manhattan commercial brokers inhabit their own high-stakes milieu. They’re not only chasing multi-million-dollar commissions but pursuing the good life of cocaine, dinners at Balthazar and trysts with high-heeled, thong-wearing babes.
The book’s action also unfolds in real estate offices, which is where Gittlin taps his insider knowledge. (Gittlin used to work as a commercial broker for SL Green Realty Corp. and now is the principal at his family’s firm, Gittlin Companies Inc.)
For instance, older tycoons like to spend long lunches at the Four Seasons restaurant accompanied by pretty young gold-diggers. Despite the city’s anti-smoking laws, being able to light up a cigar in the city’s bistros is a symbol of status. And bottom-lining in a conference room is one thing, but bonding over a lap dance at the Penthouse Club is also important.
With the exception of Jonah, commercial brokers don’t come across as all that likeable. When they’re not dropping into “warrior mode” during negotiations, name-dropping and status envy are rampant. Gray relishes the time he and his colleagues spend “at Il Mulino for dinner with clients, or the Rainbow Room for lunch to discuss strategy … . We had expense accounts larger than most Americans’ salaries.”
Gittlin also pulls back the curtain on the structure of office leasing deals, details that are often hidden. “The way the commission on a sale works is quite elementary. For the first 5 million dollars of the purchase price, the commission is 6 percent. On the portion between 5 and 10 million, the commission is 4 percent. On the portion between 10 and 50 million, 3 percent. If the price is higher still, on the portion between 50 and 100 million, the commission is 2 percent. Any portion that goes over 100 million is calculated at 1 percent. The aggregate number, keeping in mind that this structure is subject to negotiation, is the price tag for the service.”
In the typical thriller, the problem-solver is attentive to shadows lurking around every corner. In “The Deal,” however, Gray foils the bad guys while also appraising
assorted properties. The challenges of overcoming problems with taxes and understanding variations in commissions for multi-year leases, minutiae strongly delineated in this novel, will appeal to some. Others may yawn.
Gittlin isn’t above having a body fall out of a closet, but he does not indulge in car chases or disguises
or (much) hand-to-hand combat. To thwart the plans of
his devious Russian adversary, Gray deploys unorthodox
property maneuvers. Here’s an example: “So what we’ll
do is work the cost of the asbestos abatement, or
removal, into the overall price, which will simply decrease the total value on a per-square-foot basis by a couple
cents. Then we’ll use these savings to handle the problem ourselves instead of tying up the transfer of ownership
by having them deal with it. Piece of cake.” “The Deal”
is rife with these kinds of tactics of property leasing
Along the way, Gray traverses broker parties, the
conflicts of bidding wars and certain vagaries of property management. Because he romanticizes these processes, readers in the industry may see the drama of their work with fresh eyes. (Don’t worry, there’s also a lot of sex, lies and scheming.)
One of the novel’s failings is that it takes so long
to get started: Nearly a third of the book elapses before the subplots emerge. However, when they do surface,
coincidences arise, and what falls in place are the satisfying conventions of the thriller genre, such as jeopardy, conspiracy, shootout and the saving of friends.
What Gittlin does very well is to situate the action in
the new gilded age of Manhattan’s real estate hurly-burly.
In the process, he captures selected aspects of family dynasties in real estate, the adrenalin of deal-making, and the
joy of spending other people’s money.
In Gray, Gittlin has created a likeable exemplar of
a striver who, in shaping the flow of commerce, becomes
a target. The pleasure of this book lies in following a
headstrong Jonah around town as he learns that certainties can be upended.