No one ever made being bad on Wall Street look as good as Michael Lewis did in Liars Poker.
Published in 1989, two years after The Bonfire of the Vanities shone its fictional light on Wall Streets Masters of the Universe, this is Lewis's giddy, addictive, inside account of the years he spent as a Salomon Brothers bond trader in the insanely profitable sweet spot of the mid-1980s.
A quarter of a century after it came out, it's still the all-time rogues bible of unbridled, unfettered corporate excess. It's The Devil Wears Pinstripes and Braces with Big Golden Dollar Signs on Them. (Lewis wore a pair on his first day at Salomon. The braces were red. He was told to take them the fuck off. Managing directors are the only guys who can get away with wearing suspenders.)
The bawling, badass bond merchants of Salomon Brothers were the guys that Tom Wolfe watched in bloody action when he was researching The Bonfire of the Vanities
Lewis, instead, lived it. He was one of those guys. He ate with them. He got trained by them. He got shouted at by them. And then, finally, he became one of them.
That's the reason Liars Poker remains such a gluttonously readable book. As an appalled, impassive observer, Lewis explains in detail all the trickery, all the underhand finagling, all the mad financial instruments that were so avidly invented, used and thrown away again to make these Salomon hustlers so much green.
But while he was standing around watching the greatest money-making machine in history churn itself into overdrive, Lewis also became of course one of the monsters he was trying to describe: another 25-year-old salesman grappling his way up the blood-spattered corporate pole as he made a quarter of a million bucks a year.
Big Swinging Dicks. Food-frenzy Fridays. The Human Piranha (a trader who explained his market philosophy with insights like: If you fucking buy this bond in a fuckin trade, youre fuckin fucked). It was all here. And Lewis hated and loved and noted down every last minute of it.
It's as though for the two heady, snarling years he was smoking the Salomon's crack pipe, Lewis just couldn't resist hanging around to watch this end-of-Rome spectacle of Wall Streets biggest bond-trading behemoth being driven into the earth by the most venal, self-serving manager assholes ever to overindulge an expense account.
Thank God he did. His book is one of those lucky, sempiternal classics, like Michael Herr's Vietnam war book Dispatches who sees the horror in front of him and is as fascinated as he is disgusted by what he witnesses. Out of it he wrote this brilliant, funny, indelible bit of reportage about what greedy guys get up to at the corporate all-you-can-eat buffet., in which a moment of history is captured by a young reporter
It's the reason Liars Poker is still the book that every aspiring Gordon Gekko wants to read as a how-to manual to saving your hide in the junk bond jungle.
Because, even as Lewis describes his own slide down the slope of his own personal apocalypse (he high-tailed it out of Salomon at the start of 1988) he still makes it sound like the most gloriously exciting time in the most exciting place that has ever existed in human history.
Words by: ROBERT COLLINS
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