Irrational Exuberance

Why David Denby says American Sucker, his chronicle of the highs and lows of the stock market, touched a nerve.


"I broke two taboos," New Yorker film critic David Denby says of his new book, American Sucker -- his chronicle of his failed attempt to make a quick million during the stock-market boom three years ago. He's talking by phone from his Upper West Side apartment in New York City. No, it's not the apartment that became the object of his obsession, the one he'd tried to preserve in the clearing smoke of divorce from wife and novelist Cathleen Schine. It's the one he had to settle for after losing, not making, nearly $1 million.

That failure provides the narrative for Denby's book, which has become a surprising lightning rod of criticism from publications both literary and financial. The reviews have been a mixed bag, but when they've been negative they've been really negative, and Denby sees two major reasons why.

"If you're an intellectual, you're not supposed to write about money," says the 60-year-old Denby, whose very intellectual reviews in The New Yorker have alternated with the more flamboyant Anthony Lane. "New Yorkers are interested in money and status as much as anyone else, and you have journalists who might feel under-paid according to their ability compared to Wall Street brokers or bankers. I think I brought out into the open something that was and is a preoccupation to many people like me.

"Also, there has been a lot of writing by women about what happens after a marriage ends, both in fiction and non-fiction. And that journey hasn't been written that much by men. So by doing that, I don't know if it's a taboo so much as it makes some people nervous. Maybe it's considered unmanly or weak to talk about a partial breakdown after a marriage breaks up."

Denby's first work, 1996'S Great Books, based on his return to the classics at Columbia University, was well received by most critics, but American Sucker lit a fire. Behold, the critic under the microscope. Denby will discuss his memoir and other issues during his appearances at this week's 18th annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. (In a bit of bizarre kismet, Denby will even appear on a panel with Schine, whose most recent book, She Is Me, is about a woman who leaves her husband for another woman.)

Just like the stock market, there is more to Denby's book and the reactions it has incited. The book itself is a complex work because Denby goes down several paths to illustrate one theme: how we react to midlife crisis, whether brought on by internal or external factors. In deciding that holding onto the Upper West Side apartment he shared with his wife and two sons was the key to his survival, Denby inadvertently set off a chain reaction of emotions and decisions -- which is generally never a good thing when combined. Here, it inspired him to invest in tech stocks at the height of their popularity in early 2000, perhaps the worst possible time he could have done so. Believing that everyone -- even proud, intelligent, noble journalists like himself -- had a right to pursue wealth, Denby did so blindly. He was blinded by the grief, and perhaps more anger than he'd care to admit (at least in print) over his wife leaving him, and this caused him to seemingly reevaluate everything about himself.

And he then proceeded to make almost every mistake in the investment book, ignoring the advice of cooler heads including a New Yorker finance writer and then-Securities and Exchange Commissioner Arthur Levitt, and instead striking up friendships with three of the possibly most worthless resources: now-blackballed Merrill Lynch Internet analyst Henry Blodget, now-imprisoned ImClone CEO Sam Waksal, and telecom cheerleader George Gilder.

And while American Sucker does get bogged down in a series of pedantic explanations of the market and its inner workings -- which ranks close to watching paint dry in its narrative sizzle -- Denby writes vigorously about the emotional vicious circle he fell into. He ponders the notions of greed and envy (and all the Seven Deadly Sins, in fact) and writes openly if briefly of a dabbling in Internet porn and two affairs -- one extramarital, which was uncovered when the suit he'd left behind in his married lover's apartment was discovered by the husband. He is nothing if not consistent in listing his missteps. As he is quick, if a bit defensive, to point out that there is a real book underneath all the financial screw-ups here.

"A lot of people talked about it as if I just dumped my experiences on the page without any craft, without any shaping, or structure, any feeling for language, or metaphor," he says. "That (the financial aspects) became the subject frightened and excited them, and they went dead on the literary value.

"When a writer goes half crazy, it's a little different from when other people go crazy," Denby continues. "Part of you is acting badly by conventional terms. I didn't hurt anyone but myself. I misbehaved sexually, made bad financial decisions. But the other part of you is watching this person and noting it all down and consciously trying to figure this out in terms of how do I turn this into a narrative? All interesting autobiographies are about bad behavior, not good behavior. Generals and CEOs write about all the good decisions they made, but writers tell you about how badly they behaved. They know that misbehavior is more interesting than virtue without sounding ridiculous."

In a sense, Denby was swimming upstream from the beginning with this project. Not only have memoirs as a literary genre taken a beating of late -- ranking right up there with short-story collections as the murderers of the novel -- but books by stock-market crash victims aren't exactly a rare breed these days. What makes Denby's so special?

"At least a writer doesn't have a powerful position to defend, only the authority of his words," Denby points out. "I thought, I will try to be as candid as I can, and create a psychological picture of what I went through." As for memoirs in general, Denby cautions, "I don't think you can state a prejudice against an entire (literary) form."

That Denby and one of his New Yorker editors saw a story and later a book while he was in the middle of the experience clearly worked to his advantage. Though he does not necessarily convey this in the book, many of the tons of books he reads during the experience weren't just out of a desire to understand the waters in which he was swimming (both financially and philosophically) but also to prepare himself for the story he'd eventually put to paper.

And, like the bookish journalist he is, he reads relentlessly. Early on, he consults Theodore Dreiser's The Financier, examining protagonist Frank Algernon Cowperwood, partly because Denby was looking for the DNA of the investor, maybe even a role model. But because of Cowperwood's narcissistic credo -- "I satisfy myself" -- Denby looked elsewhere. "Whatever Cowperwood's qualities," he writes, "and whatever Dreiser secretly thought of him, Cowperwood was not in the end someone to emulate. ... I felt more than ever that I needed to encounter someone who made something ... ."

He would pick up a book as the mood took him. When he pondered the temptation of treating himself to an absurdly expensive and impractical (and lovely) Audi 6, he revisited Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class, but instead of feeling admonished he felt vindicated by his material lust. After acknowledging Veblen's invention and criticism of the term "conspicuous consumption," Denby was defiant: "I would buy something that made me feel good, that advertised my well-being. Greed was therapy, at least for the moment. The idea was grotesque, but Veblen insisted that our common behavior is often grotesque." Denby never bought that Audi 6, but the precedent is set: He debates against and rationalizes with his information regardless of its virtue, whether it comes from economist Robert Schiller's Irrational Exuberance or Juliet B. Schor's two works, The Overworked American (1992) and The Overspent American (1998).

"It's an act of self-definition, it's an act of self-justification," Denby says. "I needed to prove to my own satisfaction that Schiller was off. When, in fact, he wasn't. Or that Juliet Schor was priggish and missed the point."

Which perhaps brings up another, possibly unintended theme in the book that some critics have only hinted at: how a little bit of knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing. For as American Sucker proceeds, the more Denby reads, the more people he consults, the more he tries to learn, the more he loses. Maybe that's why some of his critics -- many of whom, including Vanity Fair's merciless media writer, James Wolcott, know Denby well -- were so hard on him. Here was a peer representing, as they say on the street, but in another, stranger, more materialistic world. The intellectual tried to apply his brains elsewhere, and struck out swinging for the fence.

Wolcott was particularly brutal (and quite personal) in his characterization of Denby and the book, accusing Denby of taking out the anger he actually was feeling (but never admits) toward Schine out on everyone but her. That's a risky bit of pop psychology on Wolcott's part, but there is something to the notion that through it all, the reader isn't altogether sure just how much Denby feels he has been humbled by the experience.

In the book's concluding chapter, as he gropes for closure, Denby decides to crystallize his experiences into a neat, lessons-learned list:

"The ultimate ends of life are these: First, existence itself -- survival. ... Second: Love in all its forms ... . Third: achievement, and pride in achievement -- what the Greeks call "spiritedness" ... . Fourth: The desire to attain knowledge in all its forms ... . Fifth and last: A coherent and metaphysical or biological portrait of how existence works -- God, the devil, the Big Bang, natural selection."

In one of The New York Times' many stories about Denby's book -- Denby astutely points out there were five -- Laura Miller included his work on an essay about memoirs and says Denby never really learns his lessons because of his infatuations with people like Waksal and Blodget. He dismisses this notion mainly because he insists Miller was referring to his early fondness for these two and not his more recent, sober approach.

Maybe Denby doesn't have to sound as repentant or humble as some may wish him to be. After all, he didn't actually, literally lose $900,000; that's how much he lost after the gains he'd made in the market. In fact, he more or less wound up with as much as he went in with. Plus, as Miller points out in her essay, Denby has been criticized by some for making the book too personal (they can't get over those two pages on Internet porn) and others for not being personal enough.

Denby admits he was walking a fine line when writing about his personal life. "I was just feeling my way as I went along," he says. "I was trying make sure what section worked and which didn't. I was determined not to hurt anybody; I didn't care if I looked stupid, but didn't want anyone else to look bad. In fact my wife and I get along, and there wasn't an element of revenge there. We're closer now than when we were five years ago.

"It never occurred to me that this was going to be a scandal, that people would be so trivially upset."

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