California Literary Review

American Sucker – by David Denby

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April 10th, 2007 at 8:40 am

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American Sucker
by David Denby
Little, Brown and Company 328 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

David Denby’s life began to unravel in 2000. His wife announced that their marriage was over and that she was leaving him. The emotional trauma exposed a vulnerability that lay beneath all outward signs of success: a career as film critic for New Yorker magazine, a resident of New York’s upper west side, and the father of two children. After a descent into the internet world of pornography, he latches onto the raging bull market as his salvation. The “new economy” will fill the void in his life and help him to raise the one million dollars necessary to buy out his wife’s share of their apartment, and allow him to continue living there.

This rush into the stock market will, of course, provide Mr. Denby with a book to sell. From 2000 to 2002 he is not only investing and following the markets, but also writing daily journals and interviewing the major Wall Street players to gather material for American Sucker. While others are jumping head first into this wild bull market, Mr. Denby walks two steps down into the shallow end, gets wet up to his knees, and stands there with pen and notepad in hand, keeping track of all the chaos going on in the deep end. There’s much anguish in the book over Mr. Denby’s financial plight as the market crashes. During this time the family is maintaining three Manhattan residences, weekend trips are made to New England or possibly San Francisco, the children are in camp in the Adirondacks or working on a sheep farm in New Zealand, and as the market is really heading south Mr. Denby and his son are off to Japan for a vacation together. At one point in the book he analyzes any jealousy he might have over the wealth of a couple who are having him as a guest on their 400 acre Connecticut estate. The average American I believe, would find Mr. Denby’s lifestyle so off the charts, even in bad times, that any similar analysis regarding his wealth would be an unfathomable task.

So if you’re expecting a book describing a man’s financial roller coaster ride from extreme wealth to absolute poverty, this is not it. Mr. Denby loved being a part of 1960s California, but as he mentions in the book, he never inhaled. His approach to the financial markets is very similar. “This is exciting, I want to be a part of the scene, but if you’re talking risky behavior, then count me out.” So darn! No schadenfreude! What’s left? Well, a very talented writer describing the madness that engulfed our country during the late 20th to early 21st Century bull market.

Mr. Denby chooses a great symbol for that era – John Nyquist, a former chemical engineer, who quit his job and moved with his wife from Chicago to South Carolina to become a full time day-trader. Unbeknownst to his wife, he lost $780,000 – all of their assets. One day he calls her out onto the balcony of their bedroom to look at some birds. As she leans over, he throws her off the balcony and then rushes downstairs to put his hands around her neck and finish off the job. But at a certain point, he finds that he just can’t go through with it. Greedy, inhuman behavior, with just a small ember of humanity still flickering within – this is how American Sucker sees our nation during the roaring bull market.

The two major Wall Street characters that Mr. Denby introduces us to are Sam Waskel of Imclone fame (now residing in jail), and Henry Blodget of Merrill Lynch who touted high tech stocks on CNBC. He comes to see Waskel as something of a Gatsby figure who surrounds himself with the smart and beautiful people of New York, but is quickly abandoned by these same people when he gets into legal trouble – more of a fantasist than a crook. Blodget he’s much harder on.

Throughout the book there are references to history’s other financial manias that help put our own insanity into perspective. The bears were there throughout the latter stages of this bull market. It’s just that no one wanted to hear them. It will all happen again of course, probably long after we’re gone. And when it does, American Sucker will be dismissed as “old economy” thinking – something that doesn’t pertain to the new world of uninterrupted wealth and technology. But for those of us who lived through the internet and biotech investing boom, American Sucker is a literate, entertaining insight into how it all got so very crazy.

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