When it comes to writers about the money culture in the last 20 years, there's Tom Wolfe. And then, way, way, way below, are the rest of us. Two of the best set pieces ever written about money and business are the episode in The Bonfire of the Vanities in which Sherman McCoy recounts how he can't quite make it on $980,000 a year, and the scene in A Man in Full in which Harry Zale comes to collect the debts Charlie Croker owes to PlannersBanc. While the rest of us listen with our ears to the door, Wolfe eases his way into the penthouses and boardrooms, and emerges with keen insights about the psychology and drama that come with huge piles of money.
Which is why reports that Wolfe was penning a piece about hedge funds in the gorgeous and welcome first issue of Portfolio were so exciting. (Disclosure: I've written an article that was published on Portfolio's Web site, and the first issue contained a review of my book.) While saying this may queer my chances at getting into one of Mr. Wolfe's clubs, someone has to: The Wolfe piece is terrible. It's lazy. It has many uncheckable facts. It's clichéd, resentful, and sometimes self-parodic. And when you finish reading the piece, the faintest whiff of anti-Semitism lingers.
The headline promises, "Twenty years after The Bonfire of the Vanities, the author checks in on the new masters of the universe and finds them even coarser buccaneers than their predecessors could have imagined being." And we're off with the some trademark Wolfe-ian prose: "Not bambambambambambam, but bama bampa barama bam bammity bam bam bammity barampa Fire!" The lede describes how a genteel Park Avenue co-op owner is virtually assaulted by one of the building's new residents. Equipped with vile manners, bad taste, unforgivably cheesy clothes, and even worse diction, this interloper subjects Wolfe's source—the genteel Park Avenue-ite—to a tirade about Manhattan co-op board politics. Recounting the episode, the woman asks Wolfe: "What is it that makes these people so angry and nasty?"
These people—"hedge fund managers … private equity fund managers … stock and bond traders, and various lone-wolf entrepreneurs such as real estate developers"—are the subject of Wolfe's piece. With more money than God, they're redefining New York's commercial culture and social life. Wolfe knows what motivates these new masters of the universe: "Hedge fund managers are possessed by a previously unheard-of status fixation."
That banal insight sets the stage for the rest of Wolfe's story. He tells us that in their desperate search for cachet and recognition, the new masters of the universe behave like barbarians: the obnoxious Greenwich Little League dad; the guys who talk like they're extras in 300 ("we don't eat what we don't kill"); the guy who takes personal calls in a meeting; the "twinkie wives" who pay surrogates to bear their children because they don't want to mess up their bodies with pregnancy. But Wolfe's examples don't impress, because he doesn't name names: It's not clear if these characters and stories are real.
When Wolfe does give us a name, the piece reads like a clip job. He introduces us to Thomas Hudson's Pirate Capital and Daniel Loeb's acid pen—both nicely described in Steve Fishman's New York piece three years ago. As BusinessWeek did four years ago, Wolfe describes Stevie Cohen's mammoth house: "32,000-square-foot clubhouse and 14 acres of grounds! Next to Stevie's art collection—which is nothing less than a world class museum!—Stevie's indoor basketball court, year-round swimming pool under glass, his gym, his spa facility, his theatre for movies and every other electronic medium, his hair salon, two putting greens complete with sand traps and a fairway in between, and, as the piece de resistance, an ice rink the size of Rockefeller Center's with a 36-by-24-foot rink house for the Zamboni!" This is like a Wolfe parody, a laundry list punctuated by exclamation points!!
Indeed, there's little evidence that Wolfe has any firsthand experience with these people. Yes, he attended the Robin Hood Foundation gala, and describes a scene at the wedding of Carl Icahn's stepdaughter. But I don't think he knows many of the young guys he so self-assuredly describes. (Maybe it's because he doesn't know where to look. At one point, he refers to "Merrill Lynch's 41-story building in Times Square." Perhaps he means Morgan Stanley's.)