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Silicon Suspense

[whitespace] Joe Hutsko's 'The Deal'

By Michelle Goldberg

For 10 years after joe hutsko wrote the draft of The Deal, editors asked him the same crushing question--"Why would anyone want to read a novel about Silicon Valley?"

Indeed, Hutsko's tribulations in finding a publisher mirror the frenetic dealmaking in his novel. The New York Times on the web bought the book to serialize and then bumped it hours before it was to go up. Four agents were unable to sell the manuscript. "I had a breakdown, I was taking a medicine for my stomach, and my agent and everyone else said to forget it unless I was willing to change all the characters to women and put in a murder," says Hutsko.

And he had another problem, too--the events he imagined in his fictionalized boardroom thriller kept coming true, making it seem like the book was just a slightly tarted-up roman á clef about Apple Computer.

book cover In the novel, which finally came out in January, a Steve Jobs-like visionary, Peter Jones, is ousted from the Apple-like company he helped create, Via. His nemesis and the company's new leader, Matthew Locke, schemes to sell out the organization's vision to a huge corporate clone-maker. Meanwhile, among various sexual subplots is an obsessed Stanford student who wants Jones' baby. The ending Hutsko wrote for Jones was eventually mirrored by Jobs' comeback years later. John Sculley, the man who took control of Apple after Jobs left, later admitted he had been in talks with IBM about a buyout. And Jobs started dating a Stanford student, a girl he hadn't yet met when Hutsko was writing his book. "This isn't a story of hindsight," Hutsko, 35, insists. "That's what's so awful for me, is that I wrote it so many years ago, but I can't help that people are going to read it as a fictionalized retelling of already what's past."

Nevertheless, The Deal, while full of insight into Silicon Valley business intrigue, is fundamentally fiction. Like Po Bronson's The First Twenty Million Is Always the Hardest, the novel uses the valley's delirious hypercapitalism as the backdrop for power struggles and sexual melodrama among the new rich. The novel follows Jones as, devastated after being kicked out of his own company, he devises a way to pull a computer industry coup and get back at Locke. Locke, meanwhile, has a creepy, solipsistic sexual fetish that his wife, Greta, can no longer fulfill, and she, neglected, begins an online affair with a stranger named Gregor, whose name is a Kafka-inspired clue to his essentially base nature. Perhaps the most fascinating character is Joshua Ellis, a bitter and maniacal San Francisco Examiner journalist.

The Deal is unabashedly middlebrow pop fiction, but it's also really compelling, both as a story and as a layperson's introduction to the workings of the high-tech world. Hutsko himself is a former Apple insider. He had been working at an Atlantic City casino when the Mac came out, and he was so smitten with the machine that he bounced a check buying a plane ticket to San Jose, where he begged for a job at the company. Twenty years old and lacking a college education, Hutsko was nevertheless offered a choice of five different positions at Apple. Within nine months he had become the technical adviser to John Sculley. Still, he says, Sculley isn't Matthew Locke. "People who know them say that my characters are way too nice to be the real people," Hutsko says. If that's true, then he's lucky he got out of the business, because the trickery and doublecrossing in The Deal make the publishing industry seem as friendly as a pink-and-white iMac.

The Deal by Joe Hutsko (Forge Books, $23.95, 320 pages).

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From the February 15, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc.