Not many mid-career academics can write an intellectually serious book called Decoding the U.S. Corporate Tax and follow it with a hilarious novel about three young law firm associates locked in a back-stabbing, do-or-die battle for partnership at a fictional Washington, D.C. law firm.
Such is the wide-ranging mind of Daniel Shaviro, the Wayne Perry Professor of Taxation at New York University Law School, however, that he has managed to do just that. His tightly plotted page turner, Getting It, tells the story of the caddish Bill Doberman, a resourceful schemer intent on out-maneuvering his two rivals, the self-righteous New Englander Lowell Stellworth and the bumbling but honest Arnold Porter. Doberman gets into and out of one scrape after another as he tries to ingratiate himself with the powerful name partner Cedric Cinders, satisfy the work demands of a sadistic junior partner, and successfully two-time his paralegal girlfriend with a bohemian Californian from the secretarial pool.
Although Shaviro self-published his book in March on iUniverse.com (it is also available through amazon.com), he actually started the novel in 1985 when he was, in his words, “a somewhat frustrated, single twenty-something guy, still fairly unsure about the course of his life and career.” At the time, the Yale Law School graduate had finished a stint at the firm Caplin & Drysdale (which was nothing, he stresses, like the fictional Ashby and Cinders of his novel), and was working at the Joint Committee on Taxation on Capitol Hill. He found he had some time on his hands, and enough distance from his law firm experience to effectively lampoon it. Capitol Hill, he says, with its rich pageant of “grandiosity and toadying,” supplied “an important finishing touch” for the atmosphere of his book.
The Tax Reform Act of 1986 and meeting his future wife, Patricia Ludwig, conspired to pull the young Shaviro away from his novel, however. A career in academia (specializing in tax policy, budget policy and entitlements issues) followed, first at the University of Chicago, then at NYU, along with marriage and a family. Then in the summer of 2000, the urge to resume the novel struck Shaviro, ironically triggered by the creative challenge of trying to make the book he was then writing, Making Sense of Social Security Reform, entertaining.
Shaviro, a West Village resident since 1996, salvaged the good parts of the novel and mined the bad parts for clever phrases and jokes he wanted to keep. (One of the pleasures of Getting It is the narrator’s surgical dissection of Doberman’s motives and humorous descriptions of his inflated sense of self-worth). The more mature Shaviro was able to bring his own experiences as a father of two small boys to enrich the character of Arnold Porter and fashion an ending where everyone gets what he deserves.
The book is most heavily influenced by P.G. Wodehouse, says Shaviro, noting that Getting It shares something of the spirit of Bertie Wooster’s “rejection of the serious, grown-up adult world as crazy, excessive, onerous and boring, in order to embrace a perpetual mindset of early adolescence.” The novel also brings to mind the biting satire of Evelyn Waugh, or a darker, meaner version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The latter comparison may be one reason why Shaviro can envision the young Matthew Broderick (coincidentally a West Village neighbor) playing the film role of Doberman, alongside James Spader as Stellworth.
Shaviro showed his manuscripts to various agents, and even came close to a publishing deal with a university press. He sent it cold to Louis Auchincloss, the late lawyer and chronicler of the WASP ruling class, who liked the book and suggested some modifications. Ten years after completing the book, Shaviro was ready to self-publish it on iuniverse.com. He bought the basic print-on-demand package on sale for $499, hired a cover designer, and sent the PDF file off to iuniverse.
Shaviro recently gave a reading of his novel at the NYU law school and has become an obsessive follower of his amazon.com ranking, comparing his novel’s ranking with his other current work, Decoding the Corporate Tax. “If I can write 'em both, I don't see why you can't read 'em both,” he urged his blog followers recently.
Shaviro does not foresee turning his novelistic sights on the world of academia, he says, because of “the real danger of people thinking it’s a roman à clef.” He does admit, though, “If I could continue writing novels that are different but just as good [as Getting It] and in addition win fame and fortune through that, I would do that. But I really like and would actually miss my career and what I do now.”