14 May 2007

Ugly Americans

I've been inspired (not for any very good reason) to look again at a book I first read three years ago, soon after its publication.

The book is "Ugly Americans," by Ben Mezrich, who is better known as the author of the beating-Las-Vegas tale, "Bringing Down the House," soon to be a Hollywood movie, http://cicilycorbett.blogspot.com/2007/04/luck-be-lady.html

The two Mezrich books bear some similarity, but in "Ugly Americans" the casinos that the protagonists want to beat consist of the east Asian stock markets and their indexes. The unwieldy subtitle describes the book as "the true story of the Ivy League Cowboys who raided the Asian markets for millions."

Mezrich writes in the "new journalism" borderline style of a Tom Wolfe or Truman Capote -- novelistic techniques abound, although we're assured that they apply, as that subtitle says, to a "true story."

The chief of the protagonists are two Princeton grads, known here as Dean Carney and John Malcolm. When we're first introduced to Carney, circa 1992, he's a Tokyo based senior trader for Kidder Peabody, "derivatives mostly," and we're told that he hired Malcolm for his KP's Osaka office. An author's note tells us the name "John Malcolm" is fictitious, and strongly implies the same for the name "Dean Carney." It also says that "job titles and positions at companies that were actually in existence at the time the events in the book took place ... should not be read to refer to any specific people who were actually employed by those companies at any time."

Aside from an obvious desire to keep libel lawyers at bay, I'm not sure what this means. That sounds sweeping enough to render the phrase "true story" rather pointless. How different is that language from, "The facts as stated here are not to be confused with the facts as they actually were at the places and times purportedly described"? And if it isn't different, why not just re-classify the book as ... fiction?

For such reasons as that I wasn't initially impressed by the book. But I've been giving it another go of late. Why? Because of the upcoming movie version of Mezrich's other book, because of a possible re-assignment to east Asia in connection with my own employment, and because ... I have a couple of real-life names to attach to Mezrich's characters.

The Boston Globe did a profile of Mezrich soon after the book appeared, and its reporter did some commendable spadework, discovering that the particulars in the book concerning Malcolm fit pretty closely those of Princeton grad and football player Michael Lerach.

That inspired me to do a little more googling, which led to the suspicion that dean Carney could be Richard Tavoso, also a Princeton alum, who managed Kidder Peabody's equity derivatives business in Tokyo, 1990-93.

With real names, and with some determination, one might piece together the truth behind the "true story" as Mezrich has sort-of-given it to us. I'll work on it a bit.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.