Early March on the Lower East Side of New York, and it's cold—not facemask, frostbite, birds-falling-from-the-sky cold, but enough where it'd be advisable to slip on a pair of socks, which Dana Vachon hasn't. It's a strange choice, if an unremarkable one. Still, over the next few weeks, the fact that he stuffs his dogs into high-priced loafers without the benefit of sheathing will become the subject of considerable attention around New York City. As will so much else about Vachon '02—his taste for pocket squares and fancy friends, his good looks and great fortune, and depending on whom you ask, either his sparkling future or inevitable flameout. Each factoid or easily tossed off opinion a clue, inching us closer to understanding the person whose "rapid and seemingly twist-free climb," as The New York Observer put it, "makes you wonder whether some lives don't really follow a Euclidean logic after all."
As winter turned to spring this year, Vachon stood at the center of the insular and self-absorbed New York media universe undergoing the anointment rituals necessary for becoming the Next Big Thing. He was profiled in The New York Times' Sunday Styles section; boozy book parties at chichi nightspots were thrown in his honor; and Next Big Thing emeritus Jay McInerney (he of Bright Lights, Big City) consented to stand alongside, avuncular and beaming, as photogs captured a sort of torch passing. Along the way, Vachon inspired equal parts admiration and envy, and by the end, nobody who followed his rise was agnostic. Because when people talked about the decision of an instantly famous twenty-eight-year-old novelist who came of age in country clubs, summer homes, and high-powered investment firms not to wear socks when there was still frickin' snow on the ground, they were clearly talking about much more.
The Soho restaurant Felix, with its peach walls and Brazilian theming, is stuffed with people: Wall Street types, chatty publicists, uncaged bloggers, and professional book-party attendees who also happen to edit magazines. It is a Tuesday night in April, and everyone's here to celebrate the release of Vachon's satirical first novel, Mergers & Acquisitions. The original list only allowed for 100 attendees, but the publicist says word-of-mouth carried it to 176. No way there are fewer than 200. It's so crowded it's hard to raise your drink.
Much of the material for M&A is culled from Vachon's own experience working in finance—he claims there's hardly any separation between his life and that of Tommy Quinn, the book's protagonist—and a few of his characters appear to be sauntering about. There's the flesh-and-bone Roger Thorne, gleeful representative of old-money privilege and postmillennial excess, connoisseur of sparkling watches and babes. There are about twenty stand-ins for Sophie Dvornik, introduced in M&A as the type of woman confident enough to walk into the ultra-stodgy New York Racquet & Tennis Club wearing a "sheer, black lace top and matching skirt" because "the outfit was Dior, and her breasts were beautiful." Felix ain't the Racquet & Tennis Club, but the confidence, every last bit of it, is present tonight. And like everyone else, they're getting soused on house wine.
It's the kind of affair that Vachon, if he weren't the guest of honor, would love to write about, filled as it is with social signifiers. High-society debs commingle with the bookish sort, who struggle to make conversation with financial barons. It's a veritable New York stew, and as is to be expected, the networkers are out in force, hungry.
After posing for some gossip-column photographs, Vachon walks toward the center of the room, where an editor for a high-circulation women's magazine intercepts him. "We would absolutely love to have you write for us," the editor says. "There are things you can say in a women's magazine that you can't anywhere else. We'll give you that freedom. This will be your space."
Vachon smiles appreciatively, looks down at his feet for a moment, and mumbles something about knowing all about the opportunities women's magazines can provide since he'd once written a piece for Croatian Cosmo. Then he apologizes for not being able to stay and chat longer and moves on to the next group. These guys, banking friends, greet him with a hearty "Dooood!" and he melts right into conversation with them.
Her advances gracefully rebuffed, the magazine editor turns and says, "What a great guy! An amazing talent!"
And on and on Vachon goes, for hours, charming one person after the next. M&A may take wide swipes at the strange social tics that power modern-day Manhattan, but Vachon sure knows how to navigate through them. His is an understanding based on proximity. That the book can double as a compendium of high-society minutiae, littered with names of exclusive boarding schools, country clubs, fashion labels, appetizer sauces, and other collectibles of the status-phere, is hardly a surprise. He knows that world—and is in a position to skewer it—because he's of it.
He grew up in Chappaqua, New York, where the Clintons chose to set up camp, post-Washington. Unlike his older brother and younger sister, Vachon opted out of boarding school and went to the public institution in town. Student-body president, editor of the newspaper, straight-A student—he did pretty well there. And, in his mind this is important, public high school toughened him up. "The monks at Portsmouth Abbey told my brother and sister lots and lots about their souls," he says. "I don't think they ever really taught them how to take somebody out. The world, sadly, is not a monastery on Narragansett Bay. Oh, that it were."
Then it was off to Duke. He pledged Kappa Sigma ("they were like a band of Mercutios"), wrote some humor columns for The Chronicle, and decided not to care about grades, or even most of his classes. His book jacket brags of his graduating "cum nihil," but that's not all fair either: He was a serious student of the subjects that appealed to him. He spent many days at the home of classics professor Keith Stanley—"my hero," he calls him—sipping wine and talking passionately about God and the inevitable fall of the American empire. Plus, Vachon felt as if there were an entire social education to be won at Duke just by observing.
"Duke is a flagrantly mediocre institution in terms of instruction," he says. "What you got there was an introduction to the haute bourgeoisie. You got kids from all the best places in the country, and you learned their mannerisms, and you learned their lingo, and you learned what they do. You had friends whose parents were writers. You had friends whose parents were in banking. And that's the function of the American education system. Whether Duke University knows it or not, it has no interest in making you an enlightened being. Its interest is in socializing you."
In the book, when his alter-ego Tommy Quinn describes both the Westchester public school and college (Georgetown) he attended as merely "decent," it's very much Vachon talking. It's a point of religion with him, a belief so great that it fuels his writing, that his is an outsider's position in the world of high society—no Ivy League pedigree, not a big enough inheritance to retire on at twenty-two. There are gradations, and he wasn't born on the very top one. So when asked about a reviewer who suggested that his book was about "the hardship of being a rich person who isn't like the other rich people," he seizes the opportunity to clarify.
"I was very shocked that certain people reading it couldn't see how different Quinn was from Roger Thorne," he says several weeks after the critique appeared on "Gawker," Manhattan's most popular media blog. "Thorne's got ten million dollars somewhere, and his father has 100 million. Quinn's still privileged, but he's not like the rest of them. It's like one of those tricks of perspective, right? Where I have a point here and a point here"—he's holding his two index fingers out parallel to the ground, one slightly above the other—"but I'm standing so far back, they begin to line up. The more bourgeois you are, though, the more you see the separation, and the more it makes sense. Which is why the book is flying off the shelves in Rye and Greenwich. People read it and are like, 'Oh, this poor kid!' "
May 2005. That's when the book sold, and Dana Vachon: Media Sensation was born. Before then, he was another Duke grad kicking it as a work-all-day slave at a bank, basically getting rich. No shame in that. His father was a portfolio manager, and Vachon had been working at JPMorgan Chase for about three years at that point, not counting his pre-senior year internship. Problem was, he hated it. Was as unhappy as he'd ever been. Couldn't bear the tedium of his duties. It got so bad that instead of studying spreadsheets, he began work on a series of Warhol-inspired portraits of his cubicle-mate.
"They were generally thought to be excellent likenesses," he says.
But nothing cut the Wall Street blues for Vachon like writing. He felt as if he were finally doing something, creating, and he took to it feverishly. He landed a coveted Arts & Leisure feature in The New York Times about whether "a few well-placed bills" could replace tickets at big-name concerts. And he published a prophetic piece about the John Kerry campaign for The American Conservative. He also had his blog, which he called "DNasty" and which fancifully mishmashed fiction together with horror stories from work. There, his gift for satire and eye for social absurdity were on full display, and it became an online hit at just the right time: when the book world was first scouring blogs for talent.
"The blog," Vachon once said, "didn't birth the book. But it birthed David." Meaning David Kuhn, the magazine editor-turned-literary agent described by multiple sources as the Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven's character from Entourage) of the book world—the guy you want repping you, and decidedly not the guy you want staring back from the other end of the negotiating table. Kuhn was tipped off to DNasty by a friend at a dinner party and found himself instantly smitten. "I didn't need to read that many of his pieces," Kuhn explains. "With him, you read one and you know it: This guy is a natural Writer, capital 'w.' But he had to go from being a banker working eighteen hours a day wanting to be a writer, to actually being a writer."
So they worked. Vachon, twenty-four at the time, pounded out a few sample chapters of M&A. Kuhn edited them. And they went back and forth like that—building characters, ensuring the plot wasn't getting bogged down in asides—until finally they sent a portion of the book out to publishers, hoping there'd be interest.
There was interest. Plenty. Publishers loved the book, and, not insignificantly, they loved Vachon. This last part was important because the book industry is a notoriously bad business. Five hundred and fifty-seven years since Guttenberg invented the printing press, and still nobody knows what makes consumers choose one book over another. Time and again, the industry has eschewed basic practices like market research when deciding which books to buy, relying instead on squishy indicators like feel. And along came Vachon, who appeared as bankable as they come: possessed of charm, symmetrical features, and a yen for writing about money and sex and class. Plus, he was young. The New York media spends a great deal of its marketing dollars cultivating the idea of the young genius, the Next Big Thing. From Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminatedl) to Benjamin Kunkel (Indecision), to name just two recent examples, he's the one—and it's typically a he—upon whom adulation is heaped and hopes are hung. For better or for worse, precociousness sells.
So once Kuhn made the book available, about eight houses—big ones—began tripping over themselves to get a piece of Vachon, stacking bids on top of bids on top of bids, until finally Riverhead snatched him up with a two-book contract and $650,000 advance.
"Colon-Busting Blogger Book Deal," announced the "Gawker" headline the next day. That seemed to typify the industry's response: largely jealous and uneasy. The "Gawker" editor then joked that she was having difficulty composing her blog entry because "it's rather difficult to be creative when one is simultaneously sh*tting and crying." Sara Nelson, the editor of Publisher's Weekly, claimed she felt sorry for Vachon because, chances were, he wouldn't be able to meet expectations. Then she went on to note how deals like his steal money away from "the poor, struggling hoi polloi." (This was decidedly not how his friends on Wall Street took the news; while $650,000 may be a monstrous sum to unload on a new writer, it'll barely cover an add-on to your eleven-bedroom in Westchester.)
"The irony of book publishing," "Gawker" editor Emily Gould (not the one who wrote the "colon" headline) explains later, "is that if you spend your entire life doing all the things an accomplished writer should do, like going to get an M.F.A. or spending years writing crappy novels as you work your way up to your masterpiece, maybe one day—although probably not—you'll get a ton of press, and people will read your books. Dana embodies the antithesis of that."
Regardless, Vachon had to finish a book, and he had to finish it fast (in about a year), because Riverhead didn't plunk down $650,000 just to piss off a few underpaid columnists. So he retreated to his family's beach house in Rhode Island. He spent his days on the sand draped in a bed sheet, staring out at the ocean. He spent his nights writing and drinking wine. By the end of last summer, he returned to Manhattan, book completed, publisher delighted. M&A would be Riverhead's biggest release of the spring. They'd create a fake website and fake business cards for J.S. Spencer, the firm Quinn works for. They'd buy expensive ad space in big circulation publications. They'd pitch magazine editors silly. Whatever it took to retrieve their advance money back. Riverhead was going to will this book to success.
"The problem," Vachon said in March, a month before M&A came out, "is that M.F.A.s want to write non-commercial books but take in commercial-sized advances. I set out to write a commercial book, and I was paid accordingly." He then starts laughing about a story that's in his head before he's even told it. "When my sister first called me after she finished the book, she said she loved it, and I was like, 'Oh, that's great, thank you so much.' And then she said she loved it because it read like Star [the celebrity magazine]. I put the phone to my chest for a moment and mouthed, 'Bitch.' " He laughs some more. "But now, you know, I think that might be a good thing. As much as I was tempted to write 5,000-word riffs on greed, it does me no use if you close the book, right?
"I know I've said it before, but I honestly believe it: Vox populi, vox dei."
Three weeks after the book's release in late April, the media circus is nearly over. Vachon has chosen to drink several glasses of wine and eat steak tartare at Bar Martignetti, a restaurant near his apartment that just days later the Times will hail as the place to go "if you're a New Yorker under 28 with a private school on your C.V." He's contemplating his run.
"I love the book that I wrote, and I want it to do well. But has this"—the shaking of hands until it hurts, the awkward exchanges with the press, the having to read about how his sock-wearing habits can help to explain the state of his everlasting soul—"been fun? Not much."
Although he maintained an admirably sunny disposition throughout, the process of selling himself has grown tiresome. He feels unnecessarily picked over. "Guess what: I don't like socks, and I like pocket squares. They're good for blowing a young lady's nose if she needs. And socks just get sweaty and dirty, so why even bother with them? I don't know why that's so hard for people to understand." And he's been forced to make compromises. Like for his "Night Out" profile in the Times, his publisher asked him to ham it up, to act as if he were a character in his book, because the more people who read and developed an opinion about him (good or bad), the more copies of M&A he'd sell. A piece about a typical night out for him—which he claims, somewhat disingenuously, involves little more than "eating Skittles and watching YouTubes"—won't get people talking; it won't draw eyes. So he stuffed a pocket square into his blazer and made a reservation at Le Bilboquet, one of the Upper East Side's swankier restaurants, a place he goes to "maybe twice a year." And guess what? The story was one of the Times' most e-mailed that day. It was no big deal, this playing dress up, just another step moving M&A toward a second or third printing. But spread a hundred such incidents over a period of time, and it gets old.
Of course, the book release wasn't all drudgery. The celebration at Felix, for one, was excellent, and in Los Angeles, he got to spend significant time with a hero, Gore Vidal. Vachon was in L.A. because a party was being thrown in his honor at the Chateau Marmont, the famous hotel on the Sunset Strip where John Belushi died, and also because he had to meet the film producers who optioned the rights to his book. (They're the same guys who did Babel.) Anyway, one of the producers was a good friend of Vidal's and set up a rendezvous at his house. Vachon brought Vidal a bottle of Scotch as a thank you, both for agreeing to meet and for serving as an inspiration for so long.
"The first thing I asked him was if he thought George Bush was more like the emperor Romulus Augustus, whom I wrote about in the book, or Valerian, who was famously the first Roman emperor to ever get taken prisoner in combat by the Persians." Vachon then goes into his Vidal impersonation, which isn't stage-ready but is appropriately patrician. " 'Well, Valerian was at least capable of entering combat to be abducted, so it's certainly not him.' "
From there, the two got on famously. They gossiped about literary figures and talked politics and ate spring rolls at Mr. Chow. It was one of the best days of Vachon's life. Merely recounting the story a week later makes him giddy.
"Some things are too cool to be cool about," he declares, as he takes out his Treo to show photographic evidence of their having met.
While careful not to compare himself directly, Vachon sees much to admire in Vidal's career trajectory. He, like Vidal some sixty years ago, would love to transform from a young author with much promise into a literary and social giant. But that's a long way off. For all the hoopla, M&A hasn't performed exceptionally. Nielsen BookScan (which covers 50 to 75 percent of total sales) counted 7,000 copies sold ten weeks after its release. As a point of comparison, Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision moved 9,000 in the same time frame—and Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, also published by Riverhead, went for 23,000. Vachon's next book—one that he says will be "more measured" than M&A because he's gotten some of the sillier stuff out of his system—will be set in Westchester and will somehow incorporate space travel and Ecuadorian landscapers. After that, his two-book deal with Riverhead will be up, and then who knows what he'll do.
He takes a sip of wine and curves the left side of his mouth into a neat little half-smile. "The gods laugh at men with plans, don't they?"
Toast of the Town
With a six-figure advance, an aggressively brokered two-book deal, and media buzz surrounding his rapid rise to fame, twenty-eight-year-old Dana Vachon ponders his future as the Next Big Thing.
August 1, 2007