American Sucker , by David Denby. Little, Brown, 337 pages, $24.95.
Now that the shell shock has worn off and we’re unhappily accustomed to the nonstop barrage of first-person testimony-autobiography these days being the default mode for anybody who feels the itch to write-the appearance of yet another disappointing memoir only triggers a knee-jerk urge to blame the genre. Isn’t it time to impose a ban? Or at least quality controls: No spilling of your life onto the page unless you’re certifiably great (Hector Berlioz, say, or Ben Franklin) or exceptional (Helen Keller, Christy Brown) or a writer of supreme talent (Vladimir Nabokov, Doris Lessing). Most memoirs are marred by obvious suppressions, or by a splatter of embarrassingly candid detail, and either way the ubiquitous “I” is an irritant: It clamors for our attention, our sympathy, it asks us to shed a part of our precious individuality and identify . We can surrender to these demands or resist-and shamefully reveal the stubbornness with which we defend our own slice of personal space.
Blaming the genre is a satisfyingly impersonal response to the ego-glut, but soon we bump up against the incontrovertible fact that any given memoir is more than just a symptom of our enduring culture of narcissism. Open the book and there’s the “I”-a little prod, reminding us that someone in particular made the choice about what secrets to share, what private thoughts to parade in public. In this case, the “I” belongs to David Denby, the longtime New York magazine film critic who graduated in 1998 to The New Yorker . Mr. Denby has decided to follow up his best-selling memoir Great Books (1996)-an account of a year spent re-reading the classics of Western civilization-with the sadder story of his brief, miserable career as an amateur investor speculating in the stock market.
American Sucker is actually a more local story than its excellent title would suggest. Mr. Denby grew up in New York, studied at Columbia (twice!) and eventually settled with his wife, the novelist Cathleen Schine, in a seven-room apartment on the corner of 76th and West End. The apartment-where the couple raised their two sons-is, in a sense, at the center of this book. When Ms. Schine announced in early 1999 that she was leaving Mr. Denby after 18 years of marriage, he decided that he didn’t want to move out. He had some money tucked away (he’d inherited $325,000 from his mother in 1991), and he hatched a plan to ride the surging Nasdaq, make $1 million and buy out his wife’s share of the apartment. You can guess the rest: Instead of making a million, he lost a million-and had to settle for less spacious living quarters.
The Schine-Denby breakup is getting plenty of ink this month. In a confessional aside in her long New Yorker “Personal History”-about a mad dog she owned for 18 months-Ms. Schine explains that she left Mr. Denby for another woman: “I had made one of those unforeseen middle-aged discoveries.” Mr. Denby makes frequent mention of Ms. Schine in his memoir, but never says why she left him; instead he buries a clue on page 317: “Cathy was finishing a novel, her sixth, in which a woman leaves her husband for another woman.”
There’s another story (also local) nestled alongside the sad real-estate saga: At some point (the exact chronology is not specified), Mr. Denby decided that he would write a book about his adventures in the market. He tells us that he began keeping a journal in January 2000-recording the state of his finances and also “anything that seemed joined to the obsession of the moment, which, as anyone could see, was money.” And we know that he began interviewing investment gurus and attending investors’ conferences: He met Henry Blodget and Sam Waksal and George Gilder in the year when the Nasdaq reached 5,000, when all three were still heroes to a growing flock of giddy investors. He became friends with Messrs. Blodget and Waksal; he secured an interview with Arthur Levitt, who was then the chairman of the S.E.C. (In this city, access is not a problem when you’re on the staff of The New Yorker and almost everyone recognizes your name from 20 years of movie reviews.) He visited companies and traveled to conventions. The making of the memoir is itself an important part of the narrative-the mechanics of the interviews, the locations, the mood of our intrepid reporter as he prepared for each new encounter.
The best parts of American Sucker are the vivid portraits of Messrs. Blodget and Waksal. As Mr. Denby gets to know them, so does the reader. They develop complex personalities, they evolve-like characters in a good novel. First glimpsed onstage at an investors’ conference, Henry Blodget is the stock analyst as celebrity: “He smiled nervously as people grabbed his hand. Many wanted to touch, to come close. An interesting face: There was something mysterious in the long plane between his eyes and his jaw, something unfinished.” There’s room already for the duplicity that would later emerge, and room, too, for an “awkward and charming smile.”
Entertaining his A-list friends in his loft on Thompson Street, Sam Waksal is more than just a medical entrepreneur who struck it rich. He’s a charismatic host and a kind of Renaissance man: “There was merriment in his eyes, an invitation to the fun of enterprise, and, matched to that, an invitation to talk over an idea-any idea in the world. His appetite was irresistible.” (So, apparently, was the lure of ImClone stock: Like Martha Stewart, Mr. Denby was a shareholder.)
Even after his “wayward friends” are caught up in scandal-Mr. Blodget fined and banned from Wall Street, Mr. Waksal packed off to jail-they’re never mere villains. When Mr. Denby finally has to face the fact that Mr. Blodget is “a guy who mainly wanted to maximize his compensation,” the realization “hurt like hell.” After going to watch Mr. Waksal plead guilty to six federal charges, including bank fraud and securities fraud, Mr. Denby “walked away from the courthouse in tears.”
The worst parts of American Sucker are about David Denby. Whatever happened to shame? Perhaps we’re meant to admire his honesty, the complete candor with which he reveals his foolishness; perhaps we’re meant to learn from his mistakes. But in what way is it instructive, or even entertaining, to read that in mid-1999, for a six-week period, Mr. Denby became obsessed with Internet porn? Or that he cured the insomnia brought on by his market anxieties with a cocktail of Xanax and NyQuil? Or that he repeatedly conned himself into believing that he’d found true love with a new woman? (“We greeted each other like long-lost friends who were astonished by their good luck in finding each other after so many missing years. Where have you been all this time? It was as if we had known each other in the past, in some earlier existence.”) Or that 9/11 was his personal wake-up call: “I knew I couldn’t be quite as passive as I was before September 11.”
His biggest blunder was his investment strategy: all tech, all the time. He stuck to it despite his professed ignorance (“I wasn’t lazy, exactly, but at some level, I thought the study of fundamentals was a waste of time”); despite the warnings of his New Yorker colleague, financial journalist John Cassidy (who told him bluntly in February 2000, “You’re going to lose your money”) and Mr. Levitt (who explained patiently that Nasdaq prices were “out of line with value”); and despite the fact that, all along, Mr. Denby was reading Robert J. Shiller and Thorstein Veblen and presumably thinking- really thinking -about the nation’s obsession with money. Everyone makes mistakes; not everyone insists on broadcasting them. In the absence of shame, let’s at least have modesty.
Mr. Denby is a capable writer. The problem here is not the author’s prose but his judgment, which is serially bad (an alarming failure in a critic). He is indeed a sucker-how else could he have conceived that this dismal book would ever earn a “buy” rating?
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer .