On October 15, 2002, Sam Waksal, disgraced founder of ImClone, pal of Martha Stewart and the poster boy of corporate fraud, pleaded guilty to six federal charges. Sitting in the back of the New York courtroom, wondering why he had come, was Waksal's onetime friend and admirer David Denby, movie critic for The New Yorker. In the end, Denby decided to step from the crowd and shake the hand of the man he calls "an American fool for the ages."
Denby's handshake is the near-final act in a three-year drama that began when Denby's wife, novelist Cathleen Schine, asked for a divorce and he set out to make a million dollars in the high-tech stock boom. Denby's stated goal was to gain enough money to hold onto the New York apartment where the couple had raised their two sons. But as Denby makes abundantly clear in American Sucker, his month-by-month account of this period, he was also seized by the stock market mania that gripped much of the nation at that time. "When Cathy left, I became irrationally exuberant so as not to be dead," he writes, deftly borrowing Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's memorable cautionary phrase.
Denby is essentially a moralist, and his tone is often a sadder-but-wiser one. He argues with himself about the nature of greed, about values and materialism, about the new economy and what it might mean. He quotes St. Augustine and Thorstein Veblen as easily as Internet analyst Henry Blodgett (an acquaintance he cultivates), former SEC chair Arthur Levitt or the financial press. In between, he has a little to say about fatherhood, the life of a movie critic and, yes, even sex. There are moments when Denby overplays his narrative hand, but these are the forgivable lapses of a good and perceptive writer. Denby writes that his is a "commonplace American journey." To which I must respectfully say . . . balderdash. I mean, when was the last time you lost $900,000 in the stock market? No, we read American Sucker because it is a brighter, more dramatic story than our own. And we weep, probably with relief, perhaps with glee.