Michael Lewis launched his successful career as an author with his book Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street, which is both a youthful memoir and a journalistic look at the inner workings of Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street firm that grew fat trading bonds and then crashed and burned. The book takes place, roughly, between the years 1984 and 1987, and so I wasn’t surprised that the book reminded me of the movie Wall Street – just replace Gordon Gecko with Salomon’s head John Gutfreund. At the beginning of the book, Lewis has just been hired, quite unexpectedly, by Salomon, and he takes us through his trajectory at the company, from the cut-throat training process to his days as a bond trader in London. From this vantage point, Lewis was able to watch the company, emboldened by spectacular success in the 1980s, become a symbol of corporate gluttony. Along the way, Lewis profiles many of the company’s outsized personalities. He also delves into the intricacies of the bond market in such a way that the arcane becomes pretty readable. The book is also filled with anecdotes about the conspicuous consumption of those times and the raucous, inelegant trading floor, filled with foul-mouthed traders who threw phones and insults and reveled in their gluttony. Lewis’ revelation was that the company (and its competitors) made profits at the expense of its customers, and, while the period that Lewis chronicles is interesting in its own right, its impact is somewhat diminished by the many corporate scandals and Wall Street improprieties that have occurred since the book was first published. Against this backdrop, Liar’s Poker is no longer an exceptional story that defined an era, it is merely another moment in the cycle of Wall Street corruption and ensuing retribution that continues today.
In spite of decades of ultra-totalitarian politics and extreme isolationism—or, perhaps, because of them—there is something fascinating about Albania, a fascination that Francine Prose, in her superb novel My New American Life, locates in the person of Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian woman living in America on an expired tourist visa.
After flirting her way through Immigration and bailing on her supposed destination, Detroit, for New York and a gig waiting tables at a restaurant in the Financial District, Lula is hired by an economics professor-turned-sell-out Wall Street economist—a sad-faced man she insists on calling Mister Stanley—to look after his son, a sullen teenager named Zeke who doesn’t need her to do anything more than feed him microwave pizza and keep him company watching TV. Mister Stanley wants someone around because his wife, Ginger, bailed on them on Christmas Eve, casting a pall over the house. Lula leaves the closet-sized Alphabet City apartment she shares with her (crazy but fun) Albanian friend Dunia for Mister Stanley’s lugubrious home in the Jersey suburbs. It is a stupefyingly dull job. Because she can’t drive, she spends most of the day puttering around the house, occasionally writing stories on Zeke’s laptop.
Then one day, out of the blue, three Albanian “brothers” in a black Lexus SUV show up with a gun, which they ask her to keep for them. Although this is a flagrant violation of her pact with Mister Stanley—and the gun’s discovery may well jeopardize her U.S. citizenship—Lula agrees, mostly because she thinks the lead “brother,” Alvo, is cute. The rest of the plot—essentially a metaphorical collision course with Lula’s Albanian past and her American future—stems from this imprudent if understandable decision. If the book has a weakness, it’s that the conflict is too restrained, the stakes too low; even when the Chekhovian gun goes off, as it must, there is never a sense of danger, never a hint that something terrible might befall our heroine.
But then, we don’t want anything bad to happen to Lula. She’s a thoroughly delightful invention. Like all great characters, she’s a collection of contradictions, an Albanian paradox: She’s street smart and experienced yet somehow innocent, unlike the corrupted Dunia; trapped like a nun in Mister Stanley’s chaste house—where neither of the other two occupants seem hip to her beguiling beauty—she’s nevertheless sexy, with a healthy if repressed libido (as her romancing of Alvo demonstrates); she’s a fantastic storyteller, so much so that Mister Stanley and his immigration-lawyer friend Don Settebello encourage her to write about her experiences—My New American Life is the working title of Lula’s memoir—but most of what she writes is either folklore masquerading as fact or straight-up plagiarism of the work of the Albanian poet and novelist Ismail Kadare.
The novel is presented in third person, from Lula’s point of view. In Reading Like a Writer, Prose extols the virtues of elegant sentences, citing Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Phillip Roth as some of the masters of the craft. In My New American Life, Prose is on top of her game in this respect, the fluidity of the prose surpassing, I think, her work in Blue Angel. Here is a random sample from a book full of gorgeous sentences:
No one saw the Range Rover pull up in front of Mister Stanley’s house, and though Dunia moved as if on stage, Lula and the driver were the only audience for Dunia’s theatrical scowling at each crumb of snow that menaced her beautiful boots.
All Dunia’s painstaking olfactory research results were instantly corrupted by the unforeseen variable of Alvo’s strong cologne.
Before leaning over to kiss her again, Alvo considerately pushed the buttons that heated the seats, and the warmth beneath Lula flowed into the warmth inside her.
Through Lula’s eyes, Mister Stanley and Zeke—and, by extension, we readers—see the United States in a new way. She becomes a de facto ambassador, hipping us to Albanian culture (even though much of it is Lula’s invention) and adding her own perspective on America in 2006. Prose sets up a subtle compare and contrast between America and Albania (there’s more in common than at first blush, especially during the Bush years, when the story takes place):
Yesterday night, as always, she’d felt sorry for the president, so like a dim little boy who’d told a lie that had set off a war, and then he’d let all those innocent people die in New Orleans, and now he was anxiously waiting to see what worse trouble he was about to get into. He seemed especially scared of the vice president, who scared Lula, too, with his cold little eyes not blinking when he lied, like an Eastern Bloc dictator minus the poufy hair.
Throughout the book, Prose has fun with the idea that the two countries are not as different as they seem. “‘If Hoxha and Milosevic had a baby,’” Lula jokes to her immigration lawyer, Don Settebello, “‘and the baby was a boy, it would look like Dick Cheney.’”
My New American Life is an assimilation story, in which Lula merges (literally, as it turns out) with the American citizenry. It’s a commentary on immigration; in addition to Lula’s own struggles, Don Settebello is actively doing pro bono work at Guantanamo. It’s a nod to the absurdist comedy of Kadare and other Eastern European writers. But above all, it’s a wickedly entertaining read.