Yuks From Bucks

THE MONEY CULTURE

By Michael Lewis

Norton -- 282pp -- $19.95

'Textbooks in economics, which explain the economic purpose of money (a unit of account, a store of value, and a means of exchange), usually neglect to mention the chief role of money in America," Michael Lewis maintains. And what might that be? Lewis, Salomon Brothers bond-trader-turned-author, frames the issue neatly: "A source of entertainment."

Hard to argue about that with Lewis, one of our most entertaining writers on the subject. The Money Culture, a compilation of magazine articles, rivals his Salomon memoir, Liar's Poker, in giggle-inspiring quality. Very few articles are worth reading after two years--the average age of these pieces--so the durability of Lewis' prose is impressive.

Indeed, his cogent reflection on the purpose of money comes in the midst of the book's high point--a hilarious account of a yacht trip down the Amazon with a carefully coiffed, lionized, and, by this account, sometimes imperious Louis Rukeyser. Armed with jungle-formula bug repellent, malaria tablets, yellow-fever shots, and a Hewlett-Packard 12-C handheld computer (to calculate yields), Lewis joined 69 retirees in a quest for investment wisdom. And he got some. "Get your household budget in order," the host of Wall Street Week advised his audience. A funny interlude, albeit marred a bit by Lewis' snide ageism. ("These were the sort of old people who make one ask, `Are they breathing?' " Lewis says of his fellow travelers.)

Lewis also scores with essays exploring the "absurdity of the American Express Card," the spread of Wall Street yuppie culture to Europe, and the vagaries of the Japanese stock market. He seems less at home with stock peddler Eddie Braverman, the "most likable guy ever to haggle over the bill during his mother's funeral." Cheap shots can be wearisome after a while, even from so accomplished a marksman as Lewis.

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