American Sucker, by David Denby

A desperate gamble on the dotcom bubble
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The Independent Culture

Just four years ago, David Denby was a successful American film critic on the cusp of a comfortable old age. The catastrophic collapse in his fortunes, precipitated by a gamble on over-hyped technology stocks at the height of the internet boom, makes for a riveting story.

Denby's tale is one of moral weakness rather than unadulterated greed. Only after his wife leaves him does he wade into the stock market in an attempt to buy out her share of the family home. Armed with this flimsy alibi, Denby throws away the rulebook for sceptical bookmen and sinks both his cash and his pension fund into a speculative bubble.

The story sizzles with colourful epigrams which capture the mood of popular delusion. There was, he says, "a widespread, unspoken belief that you betrayed a character weakness if you were not rich, or were not trying to get rich."

Many people convinced themselves that slapping a simple .com on everything would be enough to have it packed off into the virtual world. One conference which Denby attended throws up ideas of such breathtaking banality - shopping.com, for example, and flowers.com - that even he begins to smell a rat.

In the hands of an expert raconteur, American Sucker has all the narrative intensity of a good novel, even if we already know what is going to happen. Only half way through does Denby realise that he has seen precious little evidence of this new economy. The episode where he climbs down a manhole to see with his own eyes the fibre-optic cable needed to power high-speed internet connections is pure F Scott Fitzgerald.

The book borrows cleverly from a variety of contemporary genres. Since precious few writers are prepared to write about their relationship to money, let alone own up to blowing it in regal amounts, his memoir has more than a hint of confessional literature. By the end, Denby has become the innocent victim ritually shafted by a ring of faceless untouchables and out to get his revenge.

Denby portrays his plight as that of the ordinary investor, but his story works chiefly because of his proximity to the movers and shakers in the financial world. As a journalist on The New Yorker, he enjoyed privileged access to the braying personalities of the new economy, and counted a few among his friends. His envy at their self-belief slowly gives way to righteous anger at the hollow bluster of the financial journalists, analysts and gurus who relentlessly puffed up technology stocks while cashing in their options on the quiet.

The earnest moralising and suggestions for reform with which Denby concludes his book are not worth hearing. He is, after all, a writer and not a professional economist. If he had realised that a little earlier, he might have saved himself a little money, but deprived the rest of us of a considerable treat.

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