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BOOK REVIEWS


From The Asian Reporter, V14, #33 (August 10, 2004), page 12 and 16.

The ridiculous life of John Malcolm

Ugly Americans: The True Story of the Ivy League

Cowboys Who Raided the Asian Markets for Millions

By Ben Mezrich

William Morrow, 2004

Hardcover, 276 pages, $24.95

By Jeff Wenger

The golfer Lee Trevino has said that pressure isn’t playing in a major tournament for hundreds of thousands of dollars, but was instead, as a young man, betting $100 on a putt when he had no money in his pocket.

John Malcolm and the so-called Hedge Fund Cowboys who operated in Asian markets in the mid- to late-1990s pushed computer keys and wagered hundreds of millions on the way a market would move. When they won, they drank champagne on the beach. When they lost, the results were momentous. Either way, these expatriates are not sympathetic; their defeats and their victories are equally outrageous.

The people in Ben Mezrich’s Ugly Americans live ridiculous lives, claiming to search for the American dream in the Wild East. They are shallow and self-indulgent and pathetic. The fact that they are skimmed from Ivy League colleges does much to confirm doubts about the elites. The fact that they are mainly American says much about why the American system is so widely despised around the world.

Ugly Americans is the true story of hedge fund operative John Malcolm, though John Malcolm is a fictitious name and practically everyone speaks under anonymity. This is Ben Mezrich’s second non-fiction book after six thrillers wrapped in a Crichton-like package. Ugly Americans reads like fiction; smoothly in places, informative in others, but also sometimes as forced and even implausible. Several times the reader wonders why Mezrich didn’t just go ahead with the fake name and write a novel. As such, it may have been a worthy naturalistic undertaking and the reader would be more inclined to suspend belief.

However, as a journalistic effort it fails. Ugly Americans might have been notable for its inside look at the globalizing hedge fund operators, but it is stingy with the details. There is a repeated simplified explanation about burgers being sold here for a dollar and there for a dollar ten and so the arbitragers buy here and sell there and if that doesn’t explain what hedge fund cowboys do, then Ugly Americans won’t teach you — though there is, through the working day, a lot of typing at a computer terminal, talking at the end of a speaker phone, and banking yet another million. Anyway, the reader who begins suspecting that arbitragers are scallywags will have their suspicions verified. All the more unusual then that Ugly Americans seems to idolize Malcolm, while the reader is likely to have no empathy for Malcolm and the other vacuous characters and only contempt for their materialistic appetites.

It seems in Ugly Americans that Japan is one big brothel, and Mezrich retells the lurid parts ad nauseum. There is some threatened violence and a contrived confrontation with Japanese organized crime, the Yakuza.

The main conflict is between Malcolm and "Dean Carney," the high roller who invites Malcolm to Japan. Carney serves as Malcolm’s mentor. He saves Malcolm from a ‘carbon-copy’ life in the States, and at one point Mezrich implies that Carney’s designs for the young man may be romantic. At length, Malcolm has to search for his exit point, as Carney always taught him to do. The showdown and the payoff are empty, but are given cinematic flourishes, and so no wonder Hollywood has designs on Ugly Americans.

The best spots of Ugly Americans are some insights into the Kobe earthquake and its connection to Nick Leeson of Barings Bank. Leeson, you may recall, was the Briton operating for Barings Bank in Singapore. Barings was one of the oldest and most highly respected financial institutions in the world. (Barings helped finance the Louisiana Purchase.) But skullduggery on Leeson’s part wiped the venerable bank out in early 1995 and Malcolm was near at hand. But readers interested in the subject would be better served to dig up old Wall Street Journal articles and skip Ugly Americans.

 

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