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Close, But No Fat-Cat CEO Cigar
on 17 December 2009
This fascinating and compulsively readable book seeks to spill the beans on what was going on at the highest levels during those calamitous weeks in summer/autumn 2008 when the financial system of the U.S. (and beyond) was on the brink of collapse. Using a vast amount of interviews with a number of the top bank CEOs, their boards and colleagues and with the top players in government (possibly with the exception of Ben Bernanke), Sorkin has created a remarkable narrative illuminating exactly what happened behind closed doors as Lehman Brothers sunk and AIG and American finance's most storied institutions tottered on the brink, culminating in the notorious 'bailout' legislation. The conversations, the phonecalls, the deals, the shuttling back-and-forth, the extraordinary meetings of the heads of the mafia-like Wall Street 'families,' the fear and the panic: it's all here in this gripping book.
It's a great read and the author succeeds admirably in his stated aim of showing these titans of the economy as human beings under immense strain, being forced to improvise their way through the most testing of circumstances. It makes the macho world of high, high finance seductive and intriguing and made me hungry to read more books from the business section. The writer even makes the people he portrays come across sympathetically and it is good to see the British government, in a cameo role, standing up for itself in the face of American pressure (not that it seems that way to the Americans themselves!)
However, it fails to go further. Sorkin provides very little in the way of context and analysis. There is a brief prologue and epilogue and there are short profiles of the major movers & shakers and their institutions but the fact that the publishers have rushed to get this book on to the shelves is evident. I don't mean merely the odd typo that exists or the couple of instances of an identical sentence showing up in adjacent paragraphs, or even the few rather terrible purple passages there are at the start of the book-proper; it is the feeling that the nature - or even the true gravity - of the situation is not properly communicated to the reader. Sure, the panic is there and the events are clearly incredible and people are quoted about how dire things are, but the author rarely interjects with the naked truth from outside of the bubble that his big-wig characters inhabit. For example, newspaper/broadcast stories are only mentioned if one of the protagonists is reading/watching them. It's not a problem so much when we reach the fateful 'Lehman weekend' and the narrative-time stretches out to cover events blow-by-blow, but it is especially lacking in the book's first half and final section. (It ends too abruptly as well, followed by an epilogue that feels like a tacked-on magazine-section feature.) This, in my view, stops the book from being the masterpiece it could have been with a bit more time and a few more paragraphs on the perspective from outside of the Washington/Wall Street gilded play-pen.
In 20 years time, this will be still be a valuable resource, but other books will be needed to fill in the gaps. If Sorkin were to produce a revised edition, this could be THE book on the crisis. Well worth reading as it is though.