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Tom Bernard -- Financial Crisis Fiction

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By Tom Bernard
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Will we at least get a good novel out of this financial crisis?

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When Lehman Brothers, where I loved working for 15 years, plunged into bankruptcy a year ago, I was not thinking about literature. I was thinking about the impact on my colleagues and the global economy.

As the drama of that day-to-day fades from memory, though, I'm wondering: We have our villains. But we seem to be missing a key ingredient for the story -- the heroes.

Moments of great upheaval open the door for great storytelling. We've seen this before on Wall Street.

The financial excesses of the 1980s brought on the recession of the early '90s, the savings and loan crisis and numerous bank debacles. On the screen we saw Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street" -- the film that director Oliver Stone is now updating. On bookshelves, the '80s brought us "Barbarians at the Gate," "Bonfire of the Vanities" and the story I know most personally, Michael Lewis's "Liar's Poker."

In 1989, when Lewis published his hilarious exposé of shenanigans at the investment bank Salomon Brothers, I was working as a sales manager there. John Gutfreund, the chief executive, told us that we should read it but that he didn't want us to buy it. The firm's press guy told me that Lewis had featured me as the "Human Piranha." You might remember him: His "world was filled with copulating inanimate objects and people getting their faces ripped off." So I ran out to Barnes and Noble to buy the book. (Sorry, John.) In a display of the behavior that earned me Lewis's moniker, I barked at the clerk for stocking the book in nonfiction.

When I sat down to create my own Wall Street story, I chose fiction. In "Wall and Mean," my 2007 novel, I decided to create a flawed hero. Captain Jack Aubrey of the late Patrick O'Brian's seafaring series was my model. On the bridge of a British warship, Captain Jack was a god, but when he stepped ashore, he was a disaster with drinking, gambling, romance and naval politics.

I knew that in most successful novels, the main character earns the reader's empathy, which is where my character fell short. My protagonist, George Wilhelm, embezzled to support his gambling addiction. But he had an even more troubling problem, as Michael Ridpath, the English author of a wonderful series of financial thrillers, pointed out. "He's all about getting a big bonus. People hate that," he said.

Ridpath was right. I clearly underestimated the antipathy toward Wall Street greed, even before the financial crisis.

Americans hate Wall Street executives more than ever -- and their anger is not misdirected. They watch bankers waltz off with obscene bonuses while their taxes bail out the banks. I'm angry at myself when I think of my contribution to some of Lehman's overly exuberant investment decisions. Some of my former colleagues who used to boast about their professions now debate whether they would make better impressions by introducing themselves as bank robbers rather than bankers. It's been humbling, and I can't help replaying the details as I think about how this story will eventually be written.

I felt the walls tumbling the weekend before Lehman's bankruptcy. I was involved on the periphery in the attempts to salvage a bailout deal. But I probably had the best last day of solvency of any Lehmanite. On Sunday, Sept. 14, I competed in a mountain bike relay race to benefit local charities. I missed my last lap because I was on a call with the management committee of my department. I sat trailside watching Lance Armstrong tear up the ski mountain on his final lap and listening to my boss discuss our demise.

But what I remember best from that tumultuous time took place three weeks later. As I watched a congressional hearing on TV, I heard Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican, tell Lehman's Dick Fuld: "If you haven't discovered your role today, you're the villain." Perhaps it was cathartic for the rest of the country to watch him take a whipping.


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