“Good-bye crowbar and ski mask.
Hello computer and offshore account.”
–Nick Santora, Fifteen Digits.
Fifteen Digits, Nick Santora's second novel, is one of those stories where you're rooting for the main character, Rich Mauro, to stop falling into a spiral of crime and self-destruction. And you'll think from the first chapter, it's not going to end well for Rich, but you read on anyway, hoping the narrator will change his mind.
“They were good people,” Nick Santora writes. “And good people sometimes did bad things — but they also knew when to stop doing them.”
According to this logic, are good people those who can stop in the midst of heinous crimes and simply take responsibility for their actions? It's hard to know how deeply Santora wants us to question morality, but it's obvious he loves stories with flawed characters who make big mistakes.
Born in Queens and raised in Long Island, Santora came from a hard-working, blue-collar family. Eventually climbing the social ladder, he graduated from Columbia Law School and later started working at a corporate law firm. Since he escaped practicing law, he's been working on so many different projects in L.A. and New York that it's hard to imagine he has time to sleep. He's written for The Sopranos, Law & Order and Prison Break, co-created Beauty and the Geek and Breakout Kings and previously wrote the best-selling novel Slip and Fall.
“The reason I write all the time is fear,” Santora says. “I felt what it was like to be in a job that I hated for six years. … Now that I'm able to write, I feel that I've been given a reprieve by the governor. They had me strapped in; they had the needles to my forearm; and they were beginning to press down on the plunger. And then the governor called and said you don't have to be a lawyer anymore. You can go write.”
On the phone, Santora has a big laugh and talks with a casualness that makes you feel like it's just two guys sitting down to a pitcher of beer. And despite having had enormous success and having done countless interviews, he still has a genuine enthusiasm for the opportunity to discuss his work.
“I would be insulting my good fortune by not working hard,” Santora says. “I know there are a million people in this town that want my job. … They're working at Starbucks; they're parking our cars; they're waiting our tables … and I respect them.”
Blending together Santora's background and his quest to tell good crime stories, Fifteen Digits is a mix of Dennis Lehane and Scott Turow. It's a story of Rich and four other men from very different ethnic and economic backgrounds, working in the basement of the monolithic and powerful law firm Olmstead & Taft. And they're not lawyers; they're printers, managing the copying and distribution of the firm's most important and sensitive legal documents. At first, their relationship is about hard work and friendship, until they're approached by a slimy young attorney — think Pete Campbell from Mad Men — who shows them the trick of turning the information seething out of their printers into million-dollar investments. Thus begins a conspiracy of insider trading that leads to an ending you won't see coming.
While the plot of Fifteen Digits is far from autobiographical, in many ways Santora is similar to his main character, Rich, the son of a construction worker from Queens who naively walks into a large Manhattan law firm in the hopes of becoming a lawyer.
“The working man wants his son to have opportunities he never had,” Santora says. “So he breaks his back, figuratively and literally. … Then he buys his son a suit. Buys his son a briefcase. And pushes him out into that world. Except he and his son don't know the rules of that world. That's what I experienced. And I instantly realized I was a stranger in a strange land when I was a lawyer.”
Santora's personal experience finds his way into shaping Rich's backstory and discomfort in the white-collar world, but it's safe to say Santora never was in as much trouble as Rich is. But this feeling of being a stranger, trying to find a place, a home — geographically, socially and economically — is at the heart of Santora's writing. It's what forces his book to extend beyond its genre parameters and enter the emotional and thematic realms of good literature. Rich and his colleagues are looking for a place where they belong.
“I think children who are lost at some point and are looking for a family are looking to be loved,” Santora says. “So maybe, subconsciously, I had all these guys being misfits who were looking for homes. And they thought pulling a scam, maybe, they would finally feel secure, to have a family, by having financial security. And maybe that's why I made them all have disruptive family lives.”
Each character, in a certain sense, feels trapped. Dylan, for instance, a former gang member, can't cross 125th Street because he'll be killed. Eddie, their mentally disabled boss, just wants to find a way to get to Disney World and escape the reality that his father abandoned him. This quest for belonging, and finding security, drives them to the catastrophic mistake of trying to shortcut the system.
Despite my initial reading as seeing this book as the 99 percent against the 1 percent, the invisible members of a lower class taking advantage of a system that took advantage of them, Santora says he sees America as a place that still rewards hard work.
“In this country, if you bust your tail and work like an animal, you should be able to cross those economic boundaries,” he says. “I'm not one of those people who hate the 1 percent automatically. I think the majority of the 1 percent earned it, frankly.
“I don't think the system took advantage of [the men working in the basement],” he adds. “I think the system hired them and paid them a little above minimum wage. I think they just made a mistake. I think the system doesn't acknowledge them, and that allows the crime to be committed.”
Letting go of the questions of morality, the book's style ranges from grim humor (“If you see something that looks like a couple bowlin' balls been rolled across a barbershop floor, those my nuts”) to moments of lyricism (“The mercury-vapor lamps buzzed incessantly, as if they were complaining about their lot in life”).
Santora laughed when I asked if he considered himself a political writer. At the most basic and primal level, he wants you to be entertained.
“I want to tell a good story,” Santora says. “That is my job.”
Nick Santora will be signing his book at Mysteries to Die For in Thousand Oaks on Sunday, May 6, at 2:30 p.m.