Present Value

Present Value

Journal Issue: 
Column Name: 
Journal Article: 
Let's get the disclaimer out of the way: Sabin Willett's novel Present Value is politically incorrect, profane and extremely cynical about the chapter 11 bankruptcy process. But it is also an insightful, funny book with many scenes and characters that bankruptcy lawyers will find familiar (and hilarious). The protagonist is Fritz Brubaker, assistant controller at Playtime, a publicly traded toy company, who is married to Linda, a prominent partner at the fictional Boston law firm of Elboe, Fromme & Athol (EF&A). The book tells the story of Fritz's mid-life crisis, which is closely intertwined with his company's descent into financial difficulties and, ultimately, chapter 11. Readers may notice certain stylistic similarities to Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, but Present Value is nonetheless a fresh and original book about the business and legal worlds, most likely because the author is a commercial and bankruptcy litigator at Bingham McCutchen.

Bankruptcy attorneys will find the book to be startlingly perceptive. Here's the author on two lawyers at EF&A who are having an affair: "And they shared something else, a burning passion right at the core of the liver: the spirit of I Must Never Be Subject to Criticism." Here is one of Present Value's many riffs about the BlackBerry e-mail device: "A corollary to the principle of I Must Never Be Subject to Criticism was I Must Always Be in the Loop. At 5:36 a.m. in San Francisco, this was where the little plastic BlackBerries came in. A lawyer's delicate roots depended for nutrients on loop soil. Nothing else could nourish him." And here's the novel's summary of the chapter 11 process: "It was always the same in bankruptcy. Everybody wanted money and there wasn't enough."

The book introduces a number of well-drawn characters, such as Peter Greene, Playtime's paranoid, litigation-averse CEO, who keeps internal counsel (Don Fink) on call "24 hours a day to sit next to Greene, so the meetings would be protected by the attorney-client privilege." Fink doesn't tell his boss that "his attorney superpowers were not quite what Greene imagined." As Playtime's financial situation worsens, we also meet a number of bankruptcy lawyers in Present Value—surely, for ABI Journal readers, these will be the most compelling characters. The cast includes the great Micah Fensterwald from Pladd and Tweed (a "tall, lean bankruptcy guru from New York"); Irv Klein from Wiley and Mangel, and Saul Herzog, "the undisputed heavyweight champion of the insolvency world—of the great New York firm Speel, Snapshank LLP." Herzog is notorious for having assaulted another attorney with a ham sandwich.

Bankruptcy attorneys will find the book to be startlingly perceptive.

Present Value's plot moves along briskly and imparts some appealing (if unoriginal) lessons (e.g., money isn't everything). But for bankruptcy lawyers, the parts of the book to relish are the illustrations of different parts of the chapter 11 process, including a raucous first-day hearing in Delaware, behind-the-scenes negotiations between "vulture fund" bondholders and the debtor, and the development of a reorganization plan (along with an explanation to the CEO that the plan cancels his equity in the company). And how many novels offer a clear explanation of the absolute priority rule (including the new value exception)?

In sum, if you're not squeamish about the issues mentioned in my disclaimer, you will enjoy Present Value. Depending on your perspective, you will find the author to be either a cynic or a realist. If for no other reason, this book is worth reading for its pithy one-liners (e.g., "'aggressive' was a Wall Street euphemism, generally employed where other streets would use a synonym like 'bulls***'")

Journal Date: 
Sunday, May 1, 2005