By Tom Bernard
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Will we at least get a good novel out of this financial crisis?
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.
I, too, am angry with Dick for the bad decisions he made that propelled us into this mess. I'm angry with the other Wall Street executives, Dick's competitors, who also got caught up in the euphoria of ridiculously easy money and the perception that real estate values would go up forever. But watching Dick's congressional thrashing, I was only sad.
Fuld should not be reduced to a bad-guy caricature. I know the executives of my former employers personally: Dick at Lehman, Michael Carpenter at Kidder Peabody and Gutfreund at Salomon Brothers. With his University of Colorado diploma in hand, Fuld worked his way from the bottom of Wall Street to the top. Lehman was floundering when American Express spun it off in 1994; through sheer will, Fuld built an international powerhouse. Like NFL coaches, Wall Street executives endure a scrutiny that magnifies their mistakes. Dick, John and Michael have their flaws, but they were well-meaning in their efforts to lead their teams to victory in the world's most competitive arena.
I believe the crisis will bring us novels that will rival the popularity of the legal thrillers by Scott Turow and John Grisham. The damage is so broad and deep that what happens on Wall Street is something any reader can relate to. Because government officials made momentous decisions under incredible pressure, Washington may be featured as prominently as Manhattan. And central to this story is something almost everyone understands: the home mortgage, the financial product at the root of our economic unraveling.
Who will craft these stories? In the past, Wall Street books have been the province of relatively junior traders or bankers who are willing to leave finance behind. Recent examples of that genre are Scott Lasser's compelling "All I Could Get" and the funniest, Dana Vachon's "Mergers and Acquisitions." But today there's a wider range of ex-Streeters to choose from. Maybe one of the fallen executives will try his hand at fiction?
Whoever takes up the tale, one difficulty will be the choice of villains -- there are so many. But the primary challenge will be to create financial executive characters who can earn the reader's empathy -- maybe characters like Lehman's Alex Kirk and Michael Gelband, and Merrill Lynch's Jeff Kronthal, who left their jobs after trying to put the brakes on the reckless accumulation of toxic inventory (and were all subsequently rehired to clean up the messes). But they are wealthy executives who reaped huge bonuses for years. Maybe we'll have a novel without a hero.
"Heroic" is not the word that best describes successful Wall Streeters. The most fitting term is "competitive." The rewards have been so lucrative that the banks have been able to select the top 1 percent of applicants; once hired, they have to continue to work extremely hard to stay employed. Up or out. In my 30-year stint on Wall Street, I've worked with many wonderful people -- nurturing bosses, devoted parents and philanthropic superstars. I've also worked with many, in trading-desk parlance, scum-sucking jackals. Wall Street is not a monolith of avarice and evil.
In my own writing, I'm a decade behind, finishing my novel "The Crash of '98." The book includes a story that is likely to resonate with readers today: the bailout of Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund that was deemed too big to fail, but felled by a trillion dollars of derivatives on its books. Our regulators did nothing in response. The Wall Street guy is a sociopathic villain. The hero is a Russian gangster trying to go straight. I knew three sociopaths at Salomon Brothers, but not well enough, so I read a stack of clinical psychology books to try to get the character just right.
When I do turn to the events of the past year, my financial crisis novel will develop characters across the moral spectrum. I'd call it "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," if that title weren't already taken.
Tom Bernard is the author of the novel "Wall and Mean" and a former executive at Lehman Brothers.