Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Ghosts of Manhattan includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Douglas Brunt. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
It’s 2005, and thirty five-year-old Wall Street trader Nick Farmer appears to have it all—a successful career at top firm Bear Stearns and a beautiful wife. But after more than a decade of soul-crushing work in a field dominated by greed, drugs, and hypocrisy, Nick is looking for a way out. Yet the prospect of a bigger and better bonus keeps him tied to the lifestyle he now loathes. As this high-powered world of excess and immorality faces an unimaginable crash, Nick struggles to save his career, his marriage, and himself.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the ways in which Nick Farmer’s story echoes the classic Faustian motif of selling one’s soul to or making a pact with the Devil. Who or what is the “Devil” in this scenario?
2. Nick describes many of his colleagues as soulless and seduced by money. Is Nick a hypocrite? How similar or different is he from those around him? Would you consider him an “outsider” or an “insider”? Is he a sympathetic character? Why or why not?
3. Substance abuse is a normal part of daily life for many of the characters depicted in Ghosts of Manhattan. What role does alcohol and drugs play in Nick’s decision-making process? How does drinking affect his actions?
4. Each part of the novel opens with a quote—ranging from Friedrich Nietzsche to Guns N’ Roses. How do these quotes foreshadow the events that follow in the narrative? How do they frame your reading of Ghosts of Manhattan?
5. Many of the employees at Bear Stearns feel they are above the law. What actions contribute to this attitude? Do you consider Nick to be part of this group?
6. “It occurs to me that in the same way a person can have a kindred spirit or soul mate that they seek out, a person can also have a nemesis that they would like to remove from their life, a person to conquer or be conquered by.” (MS-pg. 81) Do you agree with Nick? In what ways does Oliver provide a foil for Nick’s character?
7. How has Nick’s tense relationship with his parents affected his choices as an adult? How would you characterize Nick’s upbringing?
8. Were there any points in the novel that you found to be both humorous and unnerving? How would you describe Nick’s narrative voice? How did this writing style relate to or mirror the themes and plot of Ghosts of Manhattan?
9. “Whatever the answer, I’m not sure I’m the type of person who can have a happy marriage anyway. I’m not that happy a guy and marriage isn’t a magic ingredient.” (MS-pg. 175) How would you describe Nick and Julia’s relationship in light of this passage? How does their relationship evolve over the course of the novel?
10. When Nick quits his job, he doesn’t appear to worry that Bear Stearns may threaten him the way they did Freddie. In your opinion, should he have cause for concern? Why or why not?
11. Do you think Nick can ever fully escape Wall Street’s grasp? Consider the following quote in your response: “A happy career seems even more unlikely. Who the hell likes his job? Trying for more, thinking there could be more, is salt in the wound.” (MS-pg. 175) In an ideal world, what do you think he should do next with his life?
12. Freddie confides his suspicions to Nick, whom he enlists as an ally. Did you find Nick to be a particularly trustworthy character? Were you surprised by Nick’s reaction to Freddie’s discoveries?
13. Discuss the role money plays in Ghosts of Manhattan. How are the haves and have-nots defined? What does money equate and what power does it hold over those seeking it?
14. What did you think of the novel’s conclusion? Did you have any lingering questions? Were you satisfied with the ending?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. For another perspective on the financial crisis watch the HBO film Too Big to Fail (2011) or read William Cohan’s House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street. How did these nonfiction accounts influence or complement your reading of Ghosts of Manhattan?
2. Discuss an area of your life in which you have felt trapped, similar to how Nick feels trapped in his job. What changes, whether small or large, could you make today to improve the situation?
3. Read through the headlines of a current publication like The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, or The Economist. How has the economy changed since 2005? In what ways does today’s economic climate echo the events in Ghosts of Manhattan? Discuss with fellow members of your book club.
A Conversation with Douglas Brunt
You are the former CEO of a private venture-backed Internet security company. What inspired you to start writing?
I’ve always loved literature. I was very shy as a kid and for shy people, literature is a great thing. It’s a safe place to go. I’m a bit less shy now, but still love to lose myself in both reading and writing. The writing has generally been something I did as a hobby. During a fairly stressful career as a CEO, sometimes in order to relax—usually on an airplane or on the weekend—I would choose to write rather than read. That’s how this novel began.
This is your debut novel. Can you describe this experience? What was the most challenging part of the process? The most rewarding?
I had a clear idea for the big picture of the novel from the beginning. Writing the first draft was a pleasure, and as I mentioned, became a way to relax. The hard stages were the many iterations of edits and refinements when I hadn’t yet made writing a career and didn’t have a clear path to anyone other than family ever reading it. The most rewarding part was seeing how much better the novel became after those many iterations.
Ghosts of Manhattan centers around the now-defunct Bear Stearns. What kind of research did you do before writing Ghosts of Manhattan? Why did you choose to base Nick’s story in the year 2005?
I read a number of books about the financial crisis, including Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin and The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis, to name two. I worked as a money markets broker for two years in my first job out of college. I also have many friends and acquaintances who work in sales and trading in New York. Many of my friends sat with me to help create a credible backdrop for the novel.
I picked 2005 because the ensuing financial crisis allowed me to address the themes of greed and hypocrisy that I was so interested in. It also let me examine the ignorance of and disregard for the catastrophes that people with little apparent power can create.
How did you come to the title Ghosts of Manhattan? Were there any other titles you considered?
It came to me while I was sitting on an airplane writing the second chapter, though at that time I had a vision for the complete novel. So, I knew the message I wanted to convey with the title. It was the only title I considered.
How closely are characters—like Jerry Cavanagh, Dale Brown, and Jack Wilson—modeled or inspired by people you’ve encountered in the financial world?
The characters are amalgamations of people I know, have read about, or have heard stories about from friends. Fortunately, or by subconscious design, none of my friends is a match for these characters, though every sales and trading floor has them.
The novel ends before the financial meltdown that Freddie predicts actually occurs. What do you think Nick’s reaction would have been?
When Bear collapsed, he may have briefly considered that Karma exists.
You evoke New York City vividly in this novel, and the particular time in which this book is set. How did writing about such a controversial, hot button current event influence your writing? Was it difficult to develop this fictional story within that accurate historical context?
Living in New York is a great advantage for a writer. For a person who naturally makes observations, there is no richer place. The financial crisis is also a great source of material to work with. Taken together, I had plenty of places to go.
Do you see any part of yourself in Nick’s character?
Had I continued to work in sales and trading as a career, I may have resembled Nick in some way. That’s all I’ll admit to.
What kind of conversations do you hope Ghosts of Manhattan will spark?
Primarily, I hope it will spark a conversation about the choices we make with our lives. Happiness is one of those choices. Understanding what makes us happy, or unhappy, requires significant self-reflection.
What are you working on now? Do you think you’ll write more about the volatile world of Wall Street?
I’m working on a novel that is set in the world of politics. I may return to Wall Street some day.