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Book Review: Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis
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Book Review: Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis - Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis has made a career of making complicated financial concepts so accessible and interesting that his books become award-winning movies like Moneyball, The Blindside, and The Big Short. In Liar’s Poker (Norton, 1989), the author’s first book, we get an inside look at Salomon Brothers, the highest-profile investment bank on Wall Street in the 1980s, where Lewis worked as a bond salesman before making the switch to writing.

Alternating between two stories—his own and his firm’s—Lewis traces the particular rise and decline of Salomon’s creation of (and monopoly on) the mortgage bond market as he also relates his own tale of ambition, success, and disillusionment beginning as a trainee out of graduate school. More than anything else, Lewis’s intended takeaway for his readers is that enormous success on Wall Street practically depends on the darker side of human nature, explaining that “Fear and, to a lesser extent, greed are what make money move.” Certain admirable traits, such as loyalty and generosity, can certainly pay off, but those who exercise greed, self-preservation, and enormous amounts of egotism become the rock stars with gaudy end-of-year bonuses.

For the reader familiar with Lewis’s later work, another takeaway is the sense that the author’s knack for memorable detail and sharp character analysis was a strength even in this earliest book 27 years ago, while his keen ability to explain very big ideas through relatable, individual stories was still just an emerging concept. This younger Lewis knows he’s on to something, an expository style that zooms in on specific character traits which can be magnified and applied to larger issues, almost like allegory. What’s missing is his uncanny ability to weave it all into one compelling narrative, the skill that makes his more recent books Oscar-winning movie concepts.

Readers familiar with Lewis’s later work will sense that the author’s knack for memorable detail and sharp character analysis was a strength even in this earliest book 27 years ago, while his keen ability to explain very big ideas through very relatable, individual stories was still just an emerging concept. This younger Lewis knows he’s on to something, an expository style that zooms in on specific character traits which can be magnified and applied to larger issues, almost like allegory. What’s missing is his uncanny ability to weave it all into one compelling narrative, the skill that makes his more recent books Oscar-winning movie concepts.

This is not to say that the writer doesn’t strive toward some universalism, a kind of morality play with the trading floor as stage. The classic sins are definitely highlighted: not only greed, but gluttony, pride, envy, and wrath, as well as a few contemporary bonus issues like sexism, race, and scapegoating. These are most effectively explored where Lewis explains his own motivations. It’s true that he takes aim at several people who are the subjects of Wikipedia articles, but where it feels the most meaningful is when he discusses his takedown of a trading director who tries to take full credit for the profitable idea invented by Lewis and a colleague, the idea that hurls him at age 25 from peon to hot shot.

Liar’s Poker only suffers as a comparison to Michael Lewis’s best work, an unfair standard the younger writer could never have anticipated he’d set himself later. Taken on its own merits, it is still a fascinating, often very funny, difficult-to-put-down read, worth a look for readers with even a casual interest in the mysteries of Wall Street and the backstory of a bestselling writer.

 

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Book Review: Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis - Executive Leadership Articles

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