By Tom De Haven
Updated March 17, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

When, as just happened, a 28-year-old futures trader can lose more than a billion dollars of his firm’s money and ruin a 233-year-old English merchant ! bank, suddenly the world of high-risk, high-speed capitalism doesn’t just seem crazy, it seems downright surreal. It seems, come to think of it, like the world according to Po Bronson. With its large cast of desperate screwballs and its mad-mad-world logic, Bombardiers (Random House, $22) is brazenly reminiscent of Catch-22, that granddaddy of black comedy. But no matter how furiously first-time novelist Bronson labors to concoct absurdist episodes, or how savagely he satirizes American corporate culture, he can never quite invest this story of financial- products salesmen with the same hallucinatory power that Joseph Heller brought to his tale of World War II airmen. It was easy to sympathize with Heller’s lost souls; after all, they didn’t choose their fate-they were inducted into it. It’s hard to feel anything but disgust for Bronson’s greedy gang of MBAs hustling overpriced bond issues 11 hours a day and earning half- million-dollar annual incomes. Bronson’s principal character-his Yossarian-is 33-year-old Sidney Geeder, who works in the San Francisco office of the Atlantic Pacific firm. ”He had no confidence in the debt instruments he was selling,” we’re told about this cranky, irascible antihero, ”and so to assuage his guilt he sold them to everyone he hated. He trained himself to hate everyone he sold to, so he suffered no guilt and avoided psychological malfunction.” While lying and wheedling on the telephone, Geeder counts down the days till his five-year anniversary on the job, when he can collect his promised $4 million in company stock and retire. Naturally, the company (your typical Evil Empire) has no intention of letting him retire, ever. Geeder’s colleagues meanwhile suffer the torments of chronic stress-everything from twitching and stuttering and lower-back pain to freakish obsessions with shaving and flossing. Riding herd over everyone is Coyote Jack, the monstrous sales manager. Yet in this ”filthy profession,” even Coyote Jack is a victim: He keeps raising quotas to impossibly higher and higher levels in order to earn himself a transfer to the Hawaii office which doesn’t exist and probably never will. This is hell, all right. Hell on the 41st floor. Problem is, Bronson invests so much energy ridiculing corporate life and voodoo economics that there’s hardly any left to spare for storytelling. What narrative hooks and plot pivots he does give us turn out, long before the novel’s end, to be nothing more than red herrings. Sid’s girlfriend, an orthopedic physician, suddenly disappears-but it doesn’t really matter. Sid’s salesman friend Eggs Igino also turns up missing-that doesn’t matter much either. What you’re finally left with is a phenomenally clever, comic lecture spiced with zany anecdotes. You finish Bombardiers scarcely able to recall a single character, but with a head full of smart-aleck epigrams and funny maxims and a firm, clear resolve to sell all of your bonds, first thing tomorrow. B-

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