Christopher Bollen’s new novel, The Destroyers, is a decadent romp through the high crimes and lowly misdemeanors of the one percent of the one percent, a glimpse at an ultra-rarefied world of excess and avarice that’s ultimately less about material wealth than it is a certain existential bankruptcy. At nearly five hundred pages, The Destroyers (Harper, $28) is, in some ways, a perfect summer read in the tradition of Patricia Highsmith. It features theft, infidelity, and, naturally, murder, all set against the sensuous backdrop of Patmos, the isolated Greek island, roughly half the geographic area of Manhattan, best known from its role in the New Testament as the backdrop for the end of the world: The retreat is home to the cave where Saint John the Divine is said to have written the Book of Revelation.
Bollen is a fan of Highsmith’s books, particularly her Ripley series; the cover of The Destroyers, which he helped design, features a Slim Aarons photograph that could easily represent one of Ripley’s European adventures. But he says it was the biblical locale that helped set his book in motion. “Back in the early 2000s, I started hearing from jet-set European friends that they were spending summers on Patmos,” the 41-year-old author recalls. “There was this weird texture to that. I was like, ‘Wait, that’s also the island of the Apocalypse. How can you be parking your yacht there?’ ”
That incongruity led the author to this sprawling literary thriller in which Ian Bledsoe, the recently disinherited son of a baby-food magnate, travels from New York City to Greece on his meager remaining funds. He’s seeking help — read: handouts — from Charlie Konstantinou, his childhood friend, now a charismatic playboy who has relocated to this Aegean idyll to build up a yacht-chartering venture. But upon his arrival, Ian discovers that Charlie is already at the center of an entourage that relies on him for support, a crew of wealthy layabouts that includes Charlie’s girlfriend, Sonny, a former actress; Louise, a law student and Ian’s onetime college girlfriend; Rasym, Charlie’s embittered Muslim cousin, and his beautiful boyfriend, Adrian; and Miles Lyon-Mosley, a British expat with less than benign intentions. With so many outsize personalities in such close quarters, there’s bound to be conflict, but the party’s resentments remain at a low boil, at least until Charlie disappears. As Ian’s search for his friend becomes increasingly desperate, he’s reminded of a game the two played in childhood: “Destroyers,” a shared fantasy in which the boys discussed escaping various locations patrolled by gunmen in black balaclavas. The goal, Bollen writes, was to find a way out; Ian begins to suspect that Charlie is still playing their game, and that he may have found a way to win.
The Destroyers is Bollen’s follow-up to Orient, a 2015 murder mystery set on Long Island’s North Shore, and his 2011 debut, Lightning People, a post–9-11 tale of millennial anxiety set in Manhattan. Though issues of privilege were elements of his earlier books, The Destroyers represents a full-throated investigation into the misbehavior of the wealthy. Bollen was familiar with the locations in his previous novels; to set his new one on Patmos, he was compelled to travel there. “It was insanely fun to research,” he says. “My third visit, I was staying there with a friend, and we were all having dinner. I was like, ‘I really need to know: If you have a nice yacht, can you travel to Turkey without a boat being searched? Is it a porous border, or do you have to go through customs?’ There was this billionaire Italian guy there who was like, ‘Let’s go tomorrow.’ So I went with him on his boat the next morning. In five hours, we got to Bodrum. It was a little distasteful, but it was helpful.”
Born and raised in Cincinnati, Bollen attended an all-boys Catholic high school. (“I took a class on the Book of Revelation. We spent first period our senior year basically drawing each chapter — a bunch of boys drawing a nude girl on top of a seven-headed bull. You know, normal stuff.”) He moved to New York to attend Columbia University and afterward began working for downtown magazines including Interview, where he remains editor-at-large. His work for those glossies gave him insight into the worlds of art and fashion, a view of society that would become invaluable to his fiction, along with some practical training. “I think of Interview as my graduate school, because I didn’t get an MFA. You learn so much from these great gods you get to speak to, like Norman Mailer and Toni Morrison….Editing dialogue helps so much in terms of writing your own. You become sort of a temporary master of someone’s voice. You get this chameleonlike ability to speak in other tongues.” The author’s skill with speech is evident throughout The Destroyers; characters hold forth in discursive passages that feel ruminative, not expository. In one section, Phillip, an old friend of the Konstantinou clan, delivers a kind of eulogy for charisma that Bollen, through the ensemble cast of his novel, seems bent on disproving: “They don’t make people like they used to. Interesting people. People like destinations. People who are entertaining instead of entertained. One day there may be a wildlife sanctuary for the last remaining characters.”
It’s clear from reading The Destroyers how much fun Bollen had writing it. Told from Ian’s point of view, the book offers an appealing meld of suspense and travelogue. It’s a character-driven mystery where the writing is frequently as luxurious as its setting: “The buildings of Kampos are amnesia white, and colored boats rock sleepily in the harbor. It is impossible not to be on vacation here. You are on vacation the way citizens in a bomb-fogged, mortar-scorched city are at war. A place claims you whether it has your consent or not.” Between the exotic locale and the dirty deeds done there, Bollen is unsurprised to find himself compared to Highsmith.
Next up, the author is planning to pen a short novel. As opposed to his process with The Destroyers, written quickly after finishing Orient, he’s allowing himself more time to meditate on the subject. “I thought I should set a book in Venice because I lived there after school, and I loved it. I want it to be sort of con-artist-y. But Venice is like New York — it’s been written about so many times, it might be challenging to make it fresh.” He continues, “Usually I just start, and it either works or it doesn’t. This one I’m trying to let simmer.”
Despite his facility with descriptions of upper-crust life, Bollen describes himself as coming from a solidly middle-class background. He admits to being interested by “kids who stay kids forever, tied to their parents’ money,” but says that not having financial wherewithal can be a boon to a writer. “If you don’t have to struggle, you won’t do it. Writing is never fun. If you don’t feel the pressure to finish [a book] and move forward, you’d just put it off. Who wants to agonize over writing on a beautiful day?”