Steven Pearlstein is a Post business and economics writer and Robinson Professor of Public Affairs at George Mason University.
In an age when too much of journalistic talent and energy is expended on chasing clicks with bite-size reporting and lightly informed opinionating on the day’s trending topics, it is fortunate that we still have Tracy Kidder. From “The Soul of a New Machine,” the story of how a team of misfit programmers won the race to develop a new computer and saved their company, through “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” the story of doctor Paul Farmer’s heroic efforts to bring health and hope to the world’s poorest precincts, Kidder has repeatedly reminded us of the value of deep, immersive reporting, the power of unadorned narrative and the extraordinary drama that is to be found in ordinary life.
Kidder has a knack for introducing us to fascinating, quirky and accomplished people. He brings to his wide-ranging subjects an insatiable curiosity and wonder, an anthropologist’s eye for detail, and old-fashioned values, both journalistic and moral. In the pantheon of “literary journalism,” he has earned a place of honor alongside John McPhee, Katherine Boo and the late Richard Ben Cramer.
Kidder brings those same talents to “A Truck Full of Money,” the story of Paul English, a restless genius who overcomes bipolar disorder and a geeky distrust for authority and business convention to achieve repeated success as a high-tech entrepreneur, most famously as co-founder of the popular travel website Kayak. Unlike most of his earlier books, however, this one disappoints. Kidder’s narrative skills seem to fail him — too much detail in some parts, not enough in others. The guiding voice and vision of the author, so welcome in his other work, are missing here.
The story of English nonetheless is a compelling one. He was the youngest son in a large Irish household in the West Roxbury section of Boston. While his off-the-chart intelligence turned him into a problem student in grammar-school classes, where he was bored and unruly, it won him entry to the elite Boston Latin high school, where he blew off his regular studies and discovered his lifelong love of computer programming. By graduation, his grade-point average was a D, but he had already created a computer game that he sold for $5,000 — enough to buy a new Apple II computer.
On the strength of near-perfect SAT scores, English was admitted to the working-class Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts, where he joined a jazz band, got a graduate degree in computer science and began insinuating himself in the programmers network in Boston’s fast-growing tech community. By the age of 25, he was managing a group of programmers at a software firm. By 35, he had started his own, Boston Light, which he sold near the height of the tech bubble to Intuit for $33 million. He generously split the proceeds with partners and employees and was anxious to give much of the rest away.
It was during a philanthropic trip to Haiti that English met up with a venture capitalist who would later introduce him to Steve Hafner, another entrepreneur who had an idea for a Web-based travel search site. On the basis of a single conversation over lunch and a handshake, Kayak was hatched.
English by then was teaching at MIT and had become something of a pied piper for programmers, with a deft touch for recruiting and winning the loyalty of the often quirky characters who write software code.
“Someday this boy is going to get hit by a truck full of money, and I’m going to be standing beside him,” one would later tell Kidder in explaining why he had followed English to four different companies.
In his more manic phases, English was a font of urgent entrepreneurial ideas. Early on, he developed a website that allowed people to play Chinese chess with each other over the Web, until it fell away for lack of interest. He created a game called Road Wars and an iPhone app that made a contest of avoiding speeding tickets while driving (English had gotten so many, he nearly lost his license). He lavished time and money on an ill-fated effort to establish a lobbying group for gun owners who favored reasonable gun regulation. And, in Kidder’s telling, he went so far as to purchase the domain name for SnapCab, a mobile app to summon taxis and limousines that predated Uber by five years. Since selling Kayak four years ago, English has opened and closed Blade, combination business incubator, venture-capital firm and nightclub. He made national headlines by publishing a list of phone numbers that would allow consumers to bypass those annoying company telephone systems. And in an ironic twist for the co-founder of Kayak, he launched a company to put travel agents back into the travel business.
But as rich a life as English has led, and as fascinating a character as he may be, there are too many details in Kidder’s tale that just aren’t all that interesting or telling. The structure, with its many flashbacks, proves clumsy. Despite prodigious reporting, there are glaring holes in his narrative: We never learn anything about English’s relationship with his first wife and their two children, or why Kayak proved to be such a commercial success. And Kidder seems unable to decide if the theme of his tale is the combination of pain and creativity that springs from mental illness, or the innovation process and entrepreneurial culture, or the tension between doing well and doing good.
Most troubling is Kidder’s reluctance to give shape and meaning to his tale as it is unfolding. When it finally appears in the penultimate page, it’s almost jarring: “Paul was a creature of the New Economy, but he was also an old American. He was a carrier of a strain in the American character that refuses to be encumbered by the past. It is an ethos that says you don’t have to do what your father did, that indeed you don’t have to do what you yourself were doing six months ago — or even yesterday. Consistency doesn’t matter. Only invention matters.”
In “Good Prose,” his guide to good writing, Kidder writes, “For a story to have a chance to live, it is essential only that there be something at stake.” In the end, the flaw in “A Truck Full of Money” may be that it’s never exactly clear what’s at stake.
By Tracy Kidder
Random House. 259 pp. $28