'American Sucker': A Fool and His Money

By David Denby.
337 pp. Boston: Little, Brown & Company. $24.95.

If David Denby, amateur investor and film critic for The New Yorker, had managed to achieve the goal he set for himself about four years ago -- to make $1 million in the stock market so as to buy out his departing wife's share of their beloved Upper West Side apartment -- he might have been happier, for a time, but he wouldn't have had much of a book. Instead, like countless other Americans who had their own reasons for adding their hot breath to the mammoth bubble in equities whose bursting still echoes in the nation's ears even as the market is puffing up again, Denby fell short, he fell sickeningly short, but he did reap disaster's perennial dividend: an interesting sad story with a moral.

The midlife crisis that led to Denby's financial crisis (in ''American Sucker'' the two are treated as one, reminding us that economics, at bottom, is always home economics) began the day his wife of 18 years, the novelist Cathleen Schine, announced that she intended to leave him. Their marriage, which Denby describes in shorthand, reserving his longhand for his money troubles, was gratifying, stable and productive -- a model of bright metropolitan domesticity. He wrote his movie reviews, she wrote her books, and the couple's two boys grew up healthy, smart and sane. The turn for the worse, when it came, was jolting and mystifying but not so harshly dramatic or destructive that it couldn't be faced in the thoroughly modern manner: by living apart while maintaining a joint bank account and working patiently toward an amicable settlement. Denby the divorcing husband was a cautious, slightly melancholy optimist.

That had been his investing style, too: go with the flow but don't get too far ahead of it. Buy bonds and sock away the interest. Buy stocks, but diversify to limit risk. Trust in growth and slowly grow in trust. Denby, when young and living in California, had been something of a radical, dancing to the Grateful Dead and defiantly pitting culture against commerce, but he'd mellowed into a propertied intellectual who sneakily admired the system for its ability to supply the good life even to those who held it in partial contempt.

What changed all of this was an upsurge of desire. Above all, this is a book about desire, not only for handsome material wealth and a comfortable, familiar home, but for love, sex, fame, fine objects (namely, a shining blue Audi sports sedan that functions as Denby's mechanical Helen, seductively beckoning him toward catastrophe and putting him on the wrong side of the old gods) and even aesthetic pleasure. In sketching his own intensely crosshatched character, so ripe for exploitation by Wall Street hucksters who played on his heady hopes about the market while suavely anesthetizing his intestinal doubts, Denby the critic reveals his tricky feelings about the movies he makes his living writing about. Mostly they disappoint him, deeply, chronically, and the soulless industrial process that creates them outrages his lofty sensibilities; but at the same time he's realistic enough to know that without the underlying profit motive the screen would go dark. Denby strikes a worldly compromise, meticulously sifting through the dreck for big-budget films that also succeed as art, then aggressively, sincerely promoting them. The system depresses him, but the system is all he has.

But suddenly, destabilized by loss and yearning for a return to wholeness, he learns to love the system -- at least as it's embodied in his portfolio. The obsession starts late at night at a computer, as so many obsessions do these days, and occasions much moving writing on loneliness in the age of interconnectivity. While searching the Internet for investment news, Denby also finds himself sampling its porn sites, and in no time he's doubly addicted, buffeted by greed and lust at once. Greed's hold is surer, though, which ought to tell us something about the nature of sin these days. Our private parts aren't our major source of trouble; it's our wallets that we can't keep in our pants. Denby cuts out the porn in favor of human girlfriends, but his hunger for stock tips only sharpens.

What results is a classic cautionary tale, complete with learned references to the Bible and Aristotle's ''Ethics,'' and featuring not one but two suave arch-deceivers who whisper in Denby's ear: Henry Blodget, the whiz-kid Merrill Lynch analyst who talked up weak tech stocks in public while sneering in private and ended up paying huge fines for his bad faith, and the Gatsby-ish C.E.O. of ImClone, Sam Waksal, whose A-list SoHo parties were well attended but whose sentencing hearing for securities fraud failed to attract a single celebrity friend.

Since Denby is a self-flagellating moper, as nervous and self-conscious as he is eager and never so wholly caught up in the euphoria that he stops gnawing his educated fingernails -- he doesn't spring for that Audi, for example, just does a lot of reading in sociology to justify his wish to own it -- his book needs these two highfliers to give it energy. Blodget is the duller of the two, a self-serving golden boy in over his head, and Denby sees through him easily, if reluctantly. Waksal is a star, though, with a charisma that Denby perfectly captures, maybe because it never quite stopped charming him. Waksal pretends to be out for more than money; he wants to heal the masses with Erbitux, ImClone's fledgling cancer drug, and shower the proceeds on a grand salon of artists, politicians and media types.

As Denby's pile fluctuates his exact gains and losses are quoted in the chapter subheads, but the chapters themselves are an eccentric mix of often lacerating confessions about his rocky love life and seminarish meditations on capitalism, conspicuous consumption and the psychological roots of greed. His tone can be pedantic, but his intention -- to freeze and analyze the mental gyrations that allow a deep thinker to become a shallow speculator -- is worthwhile and appropriate. Denby even drops in snippets of movie reviews he wrote at the time to help show us where his head was at, but they don't add much. Nor do his journal entries, which disclose a steady stream of worries that he was somehow powerless to act on.

Denby's financial frenzy, in the end, comes off as a form of emotional paralysis. He doesn't plow just his capital into tech stocks, but his anger, his fouled-up libido, his regrets and his wounded pride. He knows this at some level, but pushes on, whipsawed by exuberance and self-loathing. The crash is a relief for him, if anything, and that's a lesson worth remembering now that the Dow and Nasdaq are chugging back. Life resumes after the market closes.

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- tom moody 1-24-2004 9:40 pm

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