Upper West Side, Literati, Schools—Stop Already!

American Sucker

Upper West Side, Literati, Schools—Stop Already!

American Sucker

Upper West Side, Literati, Schools—Stop Already!
Critics and readers discuss books over e-mail.
Feb. 17 2004 12:57 PM

American Sucker

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Hello, Katha!

(Please, call me Andy.)

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First I should say that I think you sell yourself short when you say you don't know what Denby's talking about when it comes to matters financial. So much of it is common sense, and stuff your mother/father/aunt/teachers taught you. To wit: "If it seems too good to be true ..." That kind of thing. It's an important point.

But let me back up. First of all, gee, some of this is pretty close to me (and maybe to you, Katha?). Upper West Side, literati, the schools ... stop, already! So, I needed to take a step back, because I actually really do care about the variety of white truffle oils at Fairway. So, sure I chewed this book up, because it is so familiar. But. Let's switch on the redeeming value meter. And there, well, I don't know. You are right, Katha, the critics have done some savaging, especially with regard to the confession thing. As in (read indignantly): "Doesn't he know that people just shouldn't write these things ..." (I paraphrase.) Maybe. To me the bigger issue is who gives a flying hockey puck about much of this? Memoirs, or slices o' life, or whatever the heck this book purports to be I think should be reserved (not that any rulesneed be imposed) for people who matter. Like Will Rogers. Or Doris Lessing. Or Dennis Kucinich, for crying out loud. Should I write something like American Sucker? SHUDDER! (And here in this disparagement, I feel close again, because I met Mr. Denby just a month ago or so at Fortune where I work—when we excerpted the book!) (I told him that I very much admired his comment about Kill Bill where he wrote something to the effect that sophisticates will call this movie decadent, the rest of us will call it crap. Bravo!)

To me the most frustrating part of the book, though, was this conceit that Denby had that he was some sort of naif. Puh-lease. This is a guy who started "taking" (Mick Jagger says it that way) the Wall Street Journal in the early 1990s. He attended investing seminars (zzzz). He had access to Waksal and Blodget. (Well, that may have been part of the problem. Sympathy for the Devil ...) Denby also could explain the science behind ImClone's Erbitux anticancer drug—which of course was just approved by the FDA last week; wonder if they have an irony department at the agency—as well as a Wall Street analyst. (Hmmm.) Ditto with optical networking, which is the business of Corvis, another one of his stock market infatuations.

So, where did Denby go wrong? Duh! He forgot to look at the price tag! How could he? Here is someone, mind you, extremely well versed in the ins and outs of Manhattan residential real estate. To put it in terms that he might understand: Denby was buying a ground floor Classic 6 with no light and no views for, say, $5 million. That's a lot more than it's worth. (Note: I should know because I bought something like this a few years back—but I remember, I just promised I wouldn't write my own version of American Sucker.) For him to suggest that he learned everything there is to know about a company's business and investing and then simply truncated the part about not overpaying, i.e., how much are the company's earnings relative to its stock price, for one thing, is tough to fathom. Of course Denby wasn't alone—that's what caused the bubble. Millions of us throwing caution and our bank books to the wind. But Denby, this super-smart, urbane, connected guy should have known better. Don't you think? Part of it, I guess, was this midlife crisis thing. I mean he admits to being half out of his mind. And he was. I glad for him it wasn't worse. (All though how bad it actually is—i.e., how much money he really lost—is tough to tell. He never REALLY spells this out.)

As for giving you financial advice Katha, talk to my wife. She would tell you that she is counting on living out our old age in a trailer in the vicinity of Panama City. Gives you an idea ...

Katha, as a noted TV news personality once famously asked an interviewee on camera: "Just between you and me," did you get caught up in the bubble? Or any bubbles?

Best,
Andy

Katha Pollitt is a columnist for the Nation and a poet and essayist. Andy Serwer is an editor at large at Fortune and a contributor to CNN's American Morning.