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Review of The Bezzle by

The Bezzle

by Cory Doctorow

3 out of 5 stars ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Reviewed .

Shelved under

You’re not paranoid, the saying goes, if they are actually out to get you. That’s what Scott Warms and his friend, narrator Marty Hench, learns in The Bezzle. Cory Doctorow tackles the unscrupulous American private prison system in this book, demonstrating how capitalism’s death grip on the carceral state has resulted in harm beyond the physical cruelty of solitary confinement or guards turning an eye to violence. Nowadays, it costs people money to be incarcerated—money most of them don’t have—and any pretense that the system is designed for rehabilitation has been dropped in favour of pure profit for private equity. The resulting book is, in my opinion, the typical mixed bag one gets in a Doctorow novel: terribly fascinating infodumps explaining systems most of us had no idea existed behind the scenes of our society mixed with unremarkable characters with about as much personality as one of those tiny bags with two biscuits you get as complimentary snacks on Porter flights. I received a copy in exchange for a review.

Marty Hench is a forensic accountant. He makes his living auditing companies suspected of wrongdoing, and he makes twenty-five percent of whatever such malfeasance he can uncover. Thus, his work is seasonal—after he finishes a job, he takes a few months off to relax and live off the proceeds. Sometimes he vacations on Catalina Island as a guest of his friend, Scott Warms, who made his millions selling his start-up to Yahoo! during the dot-com bubble and never looked back. However, when Marty interferes with a tycoon’s pyramid scheme on the island, Scott ends up with a target on his back that. From there, the story develops into an exploration of the injustice baked into the justice system, from traffic stops with corrupt cops to plea deals and private prisons. As Marty learns more about how unfair the system actually is, so too does the reader, in excruciating financial detail. Can Marty and Scott beat the house?

This is a loose sequel to Red Team Blues, the first book to feature Marty Hench. However, aside from some vague allusions, that’s about all the two books have in common: I haven’t read the first book, and I can say that The Bezzle stands alone.

Even within the book, there are distinct parts. The first third is the most dynamic in that it involves Marty’s interaction with the greatest number of people at once—paradoxically, it also might be the least interesting part? I kept waiting for the inciting event, and it eventually arrives, but it takes far longer than I expected for Doctorow to get us into the story. Once we’re in it, the novel becomes seventy-five percent Marty talking to the reader and twenty-five percent Marty talking to one other person, a series of two-hander vignettes that punctuate the equilibrium of exposition Marty supplies about how the prison system in California is nefarious and exploitive.

As far as what I learned from The Bezzle: I already knew the private prison system was bad, and I knew some of the details, but this book sketches an even bleaker picture. Y’all really let it get that bad, huh? (I am aware, as a Canadian, I should not throw stones given my country’s own awful track record when it comes to detention and detainment.) The way that Marty gradually uncovers just how bad it is works really well to help people who are less familiar with these systems get a glimpse into how they work (and they do work, as designed—it’s simply that they are designed to siphon money from the poor to make the rich richer, rather than rehabilitate).

As far as this being an entertaining novel goes … well. Marty and Scott are about as thin characters as you can get and still have them breathing on the page, so to speak. All I really know about Marty is that he is well-off, savvy with the numbers, loyal to his friends, but somewhat of a loner and single—but presumably into women given his occasional comments about how attractive they are. (Let’s not even get into how the only significant female character is a classy sex worker with a heart of gold. Oh, and there’s also a female prosecutor who shows up near the end for like two-point-five seconds.) Scott similarly gives me richie white playboy vibes.

Now, I want to give Doctorow some credit: he’s clearly designing these characters to be satirical exaggerations of the archetypes involved in Silicon Valley. The Bezzle is essentially a parable of the financial turpitude of the last quarter century, with Marty playing the role as a David mosquito taking a tiny yet juicy bite out of Goliath. So the fact that these characters are little more than sketches is almost certainly intentional. I’ve seen Doctorow have greater range than this before. On the other hand, I’ve not seen him have much greater range than this, and none of this changes the fact that, ultimately, this book has little in it that makes me connect with these characters.

Indeed, Cory Doctorow is a dichotomous author for me: I seem to enjoy his nonfiction but, at least as I have matured into adulthood, find his fiction lacking. In part, I suspect this is because both end up as vehicles for his polemics. My politics and Doctorow’s are often in alignment (and even if they weren’t, Heinlein would attest that I don’t mind myself a polemical work of science fiction—that’s kind of what the genre is for). No, it’s because his polemics are so thinly veiled, his characters so uninteresting beyond their service to the plot, that in some cases the books seem to turn into Socratic dialogues. I do love that he’s a firebrand of a nerd who hyperfixates on subtle slivers of injustice and then magnifies them into entire novels. The Bezzle is no exception here—but I still liked it, enough that I might go back and check out the first book in Marty’s series.

So if you want to hear more about how prisons (especially privately run prisons) suck, but you’d rather read a novel instead of a nonfiction exposé, The Bezzle is for you. It’s a burn-down-the-system, fight-the-power paint-by-numbers novel, which is not a bad thing—exactly what I have come to expect from Doctorow, yet comforting and satisfying in its own way.


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