The Participatory Book Club

American Suckers

Dear Andrew,

Since it came out a month or two ago, American Sucker has been widely reviewed and much discussed—so much so that its plot has become a kind of contemporary cautionary myth. In brief, David Denby, New Yorker movie critic, self-described “family man,” and father of two teenage boys, goes into a panic when his wife leaves him and sets about investing his savings and hers in order to make a million dollars to buy out her share of their Upper West Side apartment. Against a great deal of sage advice, he starts buying tech—only tech—in 2000 when the bull market is at its peak; conceives mad crushes on a series of pied pipers and snake-oil salesmen—Henry Blodget, Sam Waksal, George Gilder, David Huber—and ignores many warning signs and every basic rule of investing (diversify, research, don’t fall in love with a stock). Sure enough, over the next two years, as the Nasdaq tumbles and the dot-com bubble bursts, he loses a ton of money.

It’s a fascinating story, and Denby tells it very well. He perfectly captures the cultural moment, the nuttiness of the late 1990s, the willingness of hitherto normal people to suspend disbelief in the business cycle and to give their money to companies that produced neither product nor profit, in fields about which they understood nothing and that were entirely run by people barely older than their own kids. I loved his anecdotes of daily life morphing around him as the boom progresses: the Pakistani newspaper vendor at 74th and Broadway handing out stock tips, neighborhood oddballs turning themselves into day traders, TV financial gurus achieving the fame of rock stars. (New Yorkers will appreciate the fact that Denby’s obsession with the New Economy is fueled by the demands of the oldest—well, second oldest—economy there is: real estate.) I was less taken with his riffs on the excitements of consumerism and capitalism and money and wealth, about which more next time, but as writing they are vivid, energetic, even poetic (well, Wallace Stevens did write “Money is a kind of poetry”). Denby is the author of Great Books, a memoir of the year he spent at Columbia taking its famous course on Western classics, and his thoughts on Plato, St. Augustine, the Bible, Theodore Dreiser, and Thorstein Veblen are always interesting and provocative.
He even manages to laugh at himself, although unfortunately not as hard as some of his reviewers have. It is a curious thing, but even though Denby says over and over again that he was an idiot, a “sucker,” and describes in minute, even humiliating detail how anxious and miserable and self-deceptive his quest for that elusive million made him, something about American Sucker makes a lot of reviewers want to mount their high horse. He watched Internet pornography! He had an affair with a married woman! He wanted to buy an Audi A6! You would think that nobody in America did these things but a handful of perverts.
Confessions are always an invitation to schadenfreude, of course. I wonder if there are readers who root for Denby to beat the odds, reverse the iron laws of finance, and make that million. I doubt it: The story is told in a way that makes you WANT him to fail. Partly it’s because, even as he’s telling you what an out-of-control oblivious greedy foolish fellow he was, he also is telling you how bold and clever and life-affirming he is. Thus, when his New Yorker colleague John Cassidy, the financial journalist, tells him in early February 2000, “You’re going to lose your money,” Denby discounts him as a gloomy bear who “keeps his money under a mattress.” Well, as an investment strategy Beautyrest beats ImClone, but I’ve heard Denby on the radio tell that story as if it’s obvious that only a fool would stay out of the market. Somehow, even though everything Denby did was reckless and ill-conceived and worked out badly, he still wants credit for trying—for being a risk-taker, a buccaneer, for grasping at the “sweetness of life,” for trying to “stop time” (boredom, aging, death)—by moving as fast as the dynamic of capitalism itself. At the same time, he gives us hundreds of pages that both show and tell that his quest for riches overwhelmed him with anxiety and envy, damaged his relationships with others, turned daily life to dust and ashes, and was, indeed, basically a huge midlife crisis brought on by his divorce and by the screaming tedium of life as a middle-aging journalist and law-abiding brunch-goer of the Upper West Side.

I admire Denby’s candor and willingness to make himself vulnerable to the reader. His is a story that is well worth having—he is, after all, an American sucker; he’s got a lot of company—and I’m not sure it could be told in another, more dignified and guarded way. It is, however, one of those books that invites the reader to pelt the author with the rotten tomatoes of moral superiority. That is the risk of confessional literature—a bigger risk than ImClone!

How did you respond to these true financial confessions, Andrew? Unlike many reviewers, including me, you actually know what Denby is talking about.

Looking forward to your reflections,
all financial advice welcome,