The new plutocrats, those one-per-centers who troubled the Occupy Wall Street movement, have inspired considerable envy, concern and outright fear since the financial meltdown of 2008—but rarely the scornful wit that talk-show host David Letterman and Canadian-born illustrator Bruce McCall bring to This Land Was Made For You and Me (But Mostly Me): Billionaires in the Wild.
The savage and very funny attack on the vacation homes and resorts frequented by the global über-rich has been a long time coming. “All my life,” laughs McCall, 78, from his home in New York, when he’s asked how long the plutocrats have been catching his attention. He began his working life in Detroit creating car ads before making his name as a satirical artist for National Lampoon and later The New Yorker, for which he’s drawn more than 50 covers. “My work,” McCall says, has always focused on “the rich and fatuous doing stupid things.” Like 400-sq.-mile Dadgum Ranch in Wyoming, where antique railcars, with roof-mounted Gatling guns, circle a herd of bison so that drunken revellers can blast them—with paintballs. As much fun as real bullets—“Blam-blam-blam! Got the bastard! The joy is exactly the same”—exults Dadgum’s owner, Miles Prower, who also owns the world’s largest money-laundering chain.
As Prower’s inclusion indicates, not all the wealth possessed by the men and women pilloried in This Land has a legal provenance, and by linking the illicit riches of some to the (strictly speaking) legit fortunes of others, McCall and Letterman cast them all into the same dubious cesspit. Just as well then, that none of their plutocrats, McCall solemnly swears, is based on an actual human being.
Although the new rich hail from around the world, their follies are disproportionately set in the American West. That’s his co-author’s doing, says McCall. “Letterman has a place out west somewhere”—Montana, in fact—“and he’s been enraged for years at the egomaniacal stuff people have been up to there. Ralph Lauren has a teak fence around his place in Colorado—cut down half of Amazonia to fence it.” (Comparing himself to billionaries, McCall adds dryly, is the only way Letterman, 66—whose fortune is estimated at $400 million—can “psychically distance himself into thinking he’s a regular guy.”)
A fan of McCall’s work, Letterman had been urging McCall continuously for three years—“like a stalker,” the artist says—to join forces with him on the project. McCall was less concerned than the talk-show host with ecosystem-destroying monuments to ego in Montana—he describes himself as more intrigued by the shifting sources and control of money today. Once he convinced Letterman to not restrict the scenarios to the West—“which meant I could do an Amazon jungle with a tree-top French restaurant”—the illustrator signed on.
The Trattoria Amazonia is one of 25 full-page (or larger) illustrations, each accompanied by a few smaller drawings and two or three pages of Letterman’s deadpan mimicry of an admiring celebrity magazine. McCall’s own favourite, for artistic reasons, is the motorized polystyrene iceberg owned by Styrofoam billionaire and “obligatory Canadian content” Claude Ste. Nervous of Montreal. “I think I caught that cold Arctic blue just right,” says McCall. But its satirical impact is more muted than in most of the page panels, and many offer more visceral appeal for those down on the one per cent. A Russian oligarch floats his yacht on a man-made lake of oil, while Delicia Glut, granddaughter of Hobart Glut, “the noted Appalachian Black-Lung King,” purchased an Aztec temple for a car-launching ramp—her cocaine-fuelled guests roar up one side in luxury vehicles and immediately down the other.
There might be a few more Wyoming spreads and a few more bison—some paint-splattered, some genetically engineered to reach 20 tonnes—than a reader would have expected. But like everything in This Land, they are all, in McCall’s exquiste renditions, reminiscent of a remark inspired by the work of an earlier Gilded Age, the 75-house Rockefeller compound in New York’s Westchester County: “What God would have built, if only He had money.”