HIGH COTTON Love and Death on Wall Street By Sherri Daley Norton. 304 pp. $18.96
A FRIEND of mine once compared MTV to an automobile crash. "It's awful, but you can't take your eyes off it," she said. Some book subjects are like that. The story told in High Cotton is awful, in the sense that it is about an apparently decent woman who cannot stop loving a perfectly awful cad. In spite of that, I couldn't put it down -- mainly because the writing makes it as riveting as a good trashy novel.
Sherri Daley was a bright-eyed lass from Michigan, bored with her job in the Big Apple, when she and a friend picked up two commodities brokers at a typical yuppie bar. Daley's discovery was Philip Hehmeyer, a high-rolling rake revered by his colleagues both for his daring on the trading floor and his free-spending ways off it.
In Hehmeyer's company, Daley became what one would have to call a party girl. She was always available for her boyfriend's drunken romps at golf tournaments and all-night cocaine/champagne parties. When he repeatedly stood her up, she cried on the shoulder of his best friend and became his lover, too. Eventually, she decided to have a child by the second fellow, who promptly ran away to London rather than face fatherhood.
Daley clearly thinks she is showing us the Gatsbys of the '80s. The settings are right: the Augusta country club during the Masters, upper crust Long Island, the Connecticut shore, Newport. Unfortunately her tale is told as if Gatsby were being performed by a third-rate summer stock company. There is decadence without glamour -- the stale smell of whiskey breath and a gambler's sweat. Hehmeyer plays the commodities game for all it is worth, winning a fortune one day and celebrating by getting obnoxiously loaded, only to lose it the next and find himself forced to sell his condo. For some reason, Daley adores him not in spite of these actions but because of them.
Meanwhile, the narrator remains something of a cipher, both to us and to her lovers. More than anything else, this is a book about dependency -- Daley's on men, the men on power. When her affair with Hehmeyer is over, she shows considerable pluck, training for a marathon, becoming a single mother. Yet she cannot get over a lout who has no concept of love. So what if he did become president of the New York Cotton Exchange? When he commits suicide, it is difficult for the reader to care. THERE MUST BE something worthwhile in Daley's story. Otherwise, why did it make me so annoyed? One reason is that Daley portrays herself as a classic bimbo. She is determined to be everything feminists hate. In one conversation, an old lover asks how she is:
" 'The job is okay, I guess. No. Not really. I don't like it. I have another offer that I think I'm going to take.'
" 'Really? Where?'
" 'A media buying company. Not exactly glamorous, but it's more money.'
" 'You don't sound enthusiastic.'
" 'I'm not. I don't want to work. I want to get married and live in the suburbs and raise marigolds and blond-haired children.' "
Perhaps what also bothers me about High Cotton are the echoes from the temples of greed on Wall Street. The commodities traders Daley hangs out with might be first cousins of Dennis Levine and company. Their profession, as Daley describes it, is so far removed from commodities in the original definition of the word that it is one step away from an Atlantic City casino. It has no redeeming social value. These people don't even spend their money well, unless you consider stumbling around putting greens with 100-proof hangovers a heck of a good time.
Daley did, and she tells her tale with a novelist's sure hand. However, if this is lifestyles of the rich and famous, give me the poor and obscure. :: Grace Lichtenstein is co-author of "Sonny Bloch s Inside Real Estate: The Complete Guide to Buying and Selling Your Home, Co-op or Condominium."