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.
The first thing you’ll notice is the urgency. Our hero’s youthful voice flirting with maturity, ready to move and ready to take you with him, whether you’re ready or not. Even when he’s waiting, you sense the activity, the plans and schemes to move his life along, to leave for pastures greener, or in the meantime, to bear the ten thousand bombs falling all around him.Ten thousand bombs. This is Beirut – 1982. The civil war has been raging in Lebanon since the mid 70s and would continue for many more years. For Bassam and his best friend George, this is the only life they’ve known. In DeNiro’s Game, the first novel by Rawi Hage, that life explodes onto the page, as Bassam dreams of escaping the day-to-day horrors of a city under siege. A city at war with itself.Fuelled by longing, by testosterone, Bassam does whatever desperation demands of him to acquire the money to leave. All the while we sense Beirut’s past weighing heavily on Bassam’s shoulders:”I climbed onto George’s motorbike and sat behind him and we drove down the main streets where bombs fell, where Saudi diplomats had once picked up French prostitutes, where ancient Greeks had danced, Romans had invaded, Persians had sharpened their swords, Mamluks had stolen the villagers’ food, crusaders had eaten human flesh, and Turks had enslaved my grandfather.”Bassam’s childhood friend George eventually joins the militia, plunging head-first into the hell that governs their lives. George lives life one step closer to the extreme, constantly tempting fate. This is where the title comes in: George is nicknamed DeNiro by many of his cohorts, who share his fascination for the Russian Roulette game played out in the film The Deer Hunter, literally a death-defying game which becomes almost a rite of passage for George and others in his group.Meanwhile Bassam deals with life in a broken city. The horrific and the mundane become one:”Ten thousand bombs had split the winds, and my mother was still in the kitchen smoking her long white cigarettes.”And an awareness of mortality mixes with youthful arrogance. Bassam tempts fate in his own way:”Death does not come to you when you face it; death is full of treachery, a coward who only notices the feeble and strikes the blind. I was flying on the curved road… I was a bow with a silver arrow, a god’s spear, a traveling merchant, a night thief. I was flying on a mighty machine that shattered winds and rattled the earth underneath me. I was a king.”Less a political tract than a survival story, DeNiro’s Game illustrates how a war breeds anarchy which then gives way to militia rule. Thuggery. And for two young men living by their wits, it’s eat or be eaten.I left Beirut when I was two years old. The civil war was still a few years off, but the whole region was unstable. And so my parents, with little Andrew in tow, packed up what we could, left behind a lot more, and abandoned the life we knew to begin a completely new one in Canada.Bassam’s neighbourhood – that’s where we had lived. The town in the mountains outside of Beirut where Bassam and George would temporarily escape the city – that’s where my grandfather was from – and was basically our second home. These neighborhoods and towns had existed for me as idyllic pre-war photos that my parents and I would periodically pore over in our comfy Canadian living room. Then on the evening news, a different Beirut – a Beirut of snipers and militias and bombed-out neighborhoods.This novel is the first thing I’ve read that draws it all together and takes it home. It would have been simple for my family to not make the life-changing decision that they made. Then I would have been like Bassam or George, growing up in a perpetual state of civil war surrounded by drug-running and siege-survival. And while my temperament, even as a youth, tended to be gentle and contemplative, I wonder how a brutal youth would have changed my very nature. And on the flipside, how different Bassam and George would have been had they been spared the never-ending rain of ten thousand bombs.
New York City, 1924: the Volstead Act has spawned a thriving bootlegging industry, jazz throbs from secret speakeasies, the hemlines are scandalous, and girls are bobbing their hair. The world has changed so rapidly that even some of the young are disoriented. Rose, Suzanne Rindell’s narrator, is a straitlaced young woman who was raised by nuns. She views the excesses of the jazz age from afar and with some suspicion. Rose understands that some people have the luxury of risking the wild freedoms of this new era, and others don’t. She has an orphan’s understanding of the precariousness of her place in the world. She follows the rules.
In early adulthood, she’s built a respectable life for herself: she’s employed as a typist at a police station in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where she sits in on confessions and types up reports, and goes home in the evenings to a boarding house. She is extraordinarily competent in her work — 160 WPM on a manual typewriter? Okay, fine, it’s fiction — and cautious in her day-to-day life.
The other typist is Odalie. When she appears for a job interview at the station, she exerts a magnetic pull on the others; Rose is mesmerized, as is the sergeant, the lieutenant detective, and everyone else. “There was an excitement in the air around her,” Rindell writes, “an excitement that might include you in some way, as though you were her secret collaborator.”
Rose is wary of “modern girls” like Odalie, with their bob haircuts and their casual entitlement, their way of moving through the city as if the city existed for their amusement. The Other Typist is a chronicle of a woman’s unraveling, but it’s also a subtle examination of economic privilege. The rapidly loosening mores of that time looked like freedom, but the level of risk that comes with freedom is never, of course, the same for everyone. Everyone who frequented the speakeasies of 1920s New York was taking a risk, but some had a net to catch them if they fell, and others didn’t. Rose’s impression that the new era isn’t for people like her doesn’t seem unwarranted.
But for all of Rose’s love of the rules, she has a certain weakness. She introduces herself as an orphan, but technically she isn’t, or at least she wasn’t when she was dropped off at the orphanage as an infant. Rose wasn’t orphaned, she was abandoned by her family, and Rindell expertly suggests the subtle vulnerability that lingers in her as a result. Odalie is a con artist, but in order for a con to work, the dupe has to want to believe. When Odalie turns the full force of her charms on Rose and eventually invites Rose to move in with her, Rose is flattered and grateful enough to ignore her doubts. By the time Rose discovers Odalie’s true business and what she’s doing working at the police station, it’s too late. She is enmeshed, for precisely the same reason that no one thought to ask why a woman of such obvious means as Odalie required employment as a typist in the first place: “I can only say we are all susceptible to blind spots when exposed to the right dazzling flash.”
Given the era, it’s impossible to avoid comparisons between Odalie and Jay Gatsby. Odalie is magnetic, charming, mysteriously wealthy, and engaged in shady business practices. There’s even a climactic party on Long Island. But if anything, Odalie is Gatsby’s mirror image; the trick of Fitzgerald’s character was that while Gatsby was obviously a fraud — James Gatz of North Dakota — he was in some essential sense a better and truer man than the careless and frivolous and perfectly respectable people who used their own names and their own unembellished backstories as they flitted through his life. Odalie is much darker. It isn’t that her charm and beauty and mysterious wealth conceals any malice; in order to feel malice, a person has to care.
There’s a certain amount of unnecessary exposition in the first half of the book, and the novel is hampered at times by a weakness for excessive foreshadowing; in the early chapters especially, there are a great many of those “but little did I know what would come next” asides that do little to move a story forward and that can even suggest a certain — in this case entirely unwarranted — insecurity on the part of the writer. But Rindell is a fine writer, and she’s written a suspenseful and well-executed novel. The Other Typist is an elegant debut.