SATIRE ON THE STREET, SUSPENSE IN THE CITY
By Po Bronson
Random House 319pp $22
NEST OF VIPERS
By Linda Davies
Doubleday 406pp $23
FREE TO TRADE
By Michael Ridpath
HarperCollins 346pp $23
`It was a filthy profession, but the money was addicting, and one addiction led to another, and they were all going to hell." With that striking opening sentence, former CS First Boston trader Po Bronson launches Bombardiers, a send-up of life on the bond-trading floor that starts out fast and never lets up. Bronson's book--perhaps the most entertaining depiction of greed and dishonesty on Wall Street ever to see print--is the best of three new novels by financial world insiders. The others are thrillers: Nest of Vipers by Linda Davies, a former merchant banker, and Free to Trade by onetime fund manager Michael Ridpath.
Bronson's "bombardiers" are the 37 bond salespeople in the San Francisco office of an investment bank, Atlantic Pacific Corp., who "bomb" customers with bonds that blow up in their portfolios. Sid Geeder, "nearly 34," is one of the grizzled veterans. Driven by hatred for the business, he pushes savings and loan bailout bonds on surviving S&Ls, figuring the bonds, sure losers, will force even more S&Ls to fold. But that's Bronson's point: Government will just launch another bailout, giving the salespeople a chance to sell more bonds and plant the seeds of the next collapse.
Bronson is a major talent, able to craft the kind of passages you reread just to revel in prose with a compelling cadence all its own: "The corruption of language and the manipulation of time and the distortion of numbers were all part of the art of selling. The salesforce created illusions, and in the process had visions of prophecy and grandeur, just like any other artists. It was a slippery business, a slimy profession, and the degree of sliminess itself was a slippery slope: little white lies; minor, benign additions; a prick of guilt; slight exaggerations; short-term debt."
Of course, he's working with rich material. Wall Street traders and salespeople are colorful and comical in real life, as Michael Lewis established in Liar's Poker, his 1989 memoir of his short career at Salomon Brothers Inc. In fact, Bombardiers often calls Liar's Poker to mind--only it's even more outrageous, since novelist Bronson need not be constrained by fact.
Bronson's parodies of the sales spiels are wonderful. Take the scene in which tyrannical sales manager Coyote Jack grills the new kid, Mark "Eggs" Igino, to see how he would respond to a customer's question about whether some bonds are overpriced. "They'll add yield to a stable portfolio. They'll add stability to a high-yield portfolio," Igino offers, passing the bondbabble test without breaking a sweat.
It's Igino, though, who nearly sinks the big Finance Bank of Romania deal by pointing out an error in the prospectus: The percentage of the collateral assigned to each tranche adds up to 110%. Word gets out that the deal is in trouble, and New York wants to fire the "pesky salesman," to the dismay of the office chief, who's counting on Igino to sell lots of those bonds. "Well, we have to fire somebody," the Director of Surveillance reasons. "We can't let this happen without some sort of scapegoat."
Instead, the crafty execs turn the crisis into a marketing gambit. They promote Igino to senior vice-president for "finding" the extra collateral, lower the interest rate on the bonds to reflect their enhanced credit quality, and plant a story in The Wall Street Journal about the idealistic young man cutting the cost of rebuilding Eastern Europe.
Such lies don't faze the bosses, but they gnaw at the sales folks, who develop addictions, neuroses, and psychosomatic illnesses. They realize they have to make their money quickly--before the guilt kills them. Igino doesn't even wait. He vanishes on the eve of the firm's biggest deal--a bond issue to finance a leveraged buyout of the Dominican Republic.
As a setting for fiction, the financial markets offer high drama as well as low comedy, since fortunes and reputations are always on the line. Bronson exploits some of that. There's an effective cliffhanger, for example, in which a salesman-turned-client, angry because he wasn't paid all he was owed when he quit, exacts his revenge--at a cost far greater than four months' commissions. Bronson's main achievement, though, is to keep his readers laughing.
In Nest of Vipers, Linda Davies tries to capture the markets' drama. And her book, though less ambitious and less memorable than Bombardiers, succeeds as a financial thriller. Set in the City of London, it features currency trader Sarah Jensen--brilliant, beautiful, and rich. She's recruited by the governor of the Bank of England to find out why the foreign exchange desk at a certain bank scores big whenever G-7 finance ministers make a major announcement.
With the help of some devoted friends, a retired safecracker, and a Japanese currency trader, Sarah uncovers the leaks. But her discovery comes at great emotional expense and, more horribly, costs the lives of some of the people she loves. At times, Sarah seems a little too smart and a little too perfect, but Davies imbues her with a satisfying moral complexity. Sarah makes a very profitable personal trade on information gathered in her probe, for instance--and she doesn't give it back or use it to shelter the homeless.
Michael Ridpath's Free to Trade, also set in London, gets off to a decent start when Paul Murray, a young bond manager and former Olympic runner, learns that a female colleague has been found floating in the Thames. Murray is convinced she was killed because she learned something unseemly about one of their company's investments. Turning sleuth, he follows a trail that leads to New York, Phoenix, and Las Vegas. By the middle of the book, however, the plot is foundering and the reader, weary as the jet-lagged hero, is wondering whether it's worth going on. I did, but I probably wouldn't have if I had already read Bombardiers or Vipers, both of which are far better books.BY JEFFREY M. LADERMAN