Personal Business

Is a Ponzi scheme always founded in evil?

by Chris Scott

Shimmer
Eric Barnes
Unbridled Books
281 pages
$25.95

Meet Robbie Case. Thirty-five-year-old CEO of multi-national Core Communications. Wunderkind manager. Technical guru. Beloved boss. Darling of Wall Street. Liar extraordinaire.

Robbie, his associates, and Core itself are the inventions of first-time novelist Eric Barnes. A former communications-company chief operating officer and reporter, Barnes is the publisher of both the The Daily News and The Memphis News and clearly knows a thing or two about business. In Shimmer, Barnes has gone beyond the headlines and the stereotypes to explore the psyche of a Madoff-like liar at the head of a wildly successful tech company. What makes him take such risks and ignore all warnings? Is it the money? The fame? Or something entirely unexpected?

Photo of author, Eric BarnesRobbie sleeps only rarely and leaves Core's headquarters even less often. His days create their own time zone, a blur of meetings, emails, phone calls, and a computer interfacing that sets his schedule and demands his obedience. His touchstones are the floors and departments of Core's New York hive, which operates, 24/7, in a state of organized chaos. With employees he seems friendly, even familial, but in fact he's so emotionally isolated that brief escape comes only through late-night trysts with high-priced call girls. He has built the business through will power, the devotion of his senior staff, and an elaborate scam that he knows will eventually collapse and leave him utterly alone.

The eponymous Shimmer is the computer network Robbie uses simultaneously to deceive the world and to seek salvation. He consults the machine constantly, looking for a way out and, by necessity, more ways of extending his fraud. It is both his portal to the world and his co-conspirator: "Imagine a dream, a dream with clarity and precision, a dream that can't be explained or deciphered, but a dream so real you believe it, you touch it, you remember it completely because every idea in that dream, every person, every notion and decision, every part of it makes sense. That was Shimmer."

He has built the business through will power, the devotion of his senior staff, and an elaborate scam that he knows will eventually collapse and leave him utterly alone.

Barnes, however, isn't interested primarily in corporate infrastructure. The real story of Shimmer is the interaction between the people of Core, the folks who play mini-golf in the hall when they're not making millions for the company. These people have become Robbie's family, and he worries about how his deception will hurt them. "Once more I remembered that I would bankrupt them all. Cliff with his six kids. Julie with her newborn. Whitley, who'd just turned down top jobs at the largest software and telecom companies in the world. Leonard, whose father had been with my father, back when the company had employed just thirty people." It is this guilty conscience that keeps the reader on Robbie's side, hoping that he can hold it all together, fight off the blackmailers and the corporate predators, and deliver his creation to the promised land.

In Shimmer, Barnes has created a timely corporate thriller with heart, an ode to good people who do bad things and who genuinely believe it's not always about the money. Sometimes it's personal.

Published Monday, 5 October 2009