Many people dream of making a million dollars, but few go further in their attempts than buying a lottery ticket. New Yorker film critic David Denby, however, became obsessed with the idea and, in the process, lost $900,000. He also lost his faith in friends, idols, and a system in which he had firmly believed. He details all of this in American Sucker, a scathing indictment of Wall Street and the scandals that have rocked it these last ten years.
Denby's troubles began when his wife announced she wanted a divorce. Until then, they'd led a charmed life. At 56, Denby had a job nearly anyone would envy, having reviewed films for New York magazine before moving on to the New Yorker. His novelist wife was the author of successful books; the couple had two young sons and a "drab but spacious" -- read: valuable -- apartment on New York's Upper West Side. By 1999, when this story begins, the apartment had appreciated in worth to some $2.4 million, so Denby hit on the idea of making a million bucks so that he could buy out his wife and preserve some semblance of stability, both for himself and the boys.
Gutting bank accounts and cashing in insurance policies, Denby invested everything in the stock market, which, at that point, was skyrocketing. Tech stocks soared, the Dow roared, and fresh millionaires were minted daily -- sometimes even hourly. Blinded by his own need and greed, Denby even befriended stock analyst Henry Blodgett and partied with ImClone's Sam Waksal to get inside scoops. He was a man possessed -- and American Sucker describes that possession with chillingly eloquent self-awareness -- until the bubble burst with the exposure of Waksal's insider trading, Enron and Arthur Andersen cooking the books, Blodgett's collusion to defraud investors, and other scams. Denby's dreams, and just as importantly his investments, slid through his fingers like so much snake oil.
Although American Sucker offers a fascinating glimpse into the forces that created trust and then mistrust in an American institution, its biggest problem is Denby's frequent departures into highly technical discussions of the market, employing insider lingo that will baffle nontraders. When this becomes as distracting as the ticker running along the bottom of a TV screen, skip past it to find the real story of the human triumphs and tragedies those boom-and-bust years spawned.
Twentysomething newlywed Patricia Van Tighem was a quintessential, out-of-central-casting Disney heroine: Pretty, blue-eyed, and blonde, she worked as a nurse while her handsome husband Trevor went to med school. Yearning for little more than to live happily ever after, the serene Canadian couple chose to spend one of their rare vacations hiking in the Rockies. Unfortunately, life didn't imitate Disney the day they met the bear.
Had it been a Disney film, the bear would've invited them back to the cave to meet the fam and enjoy some tea and crumpets; instead, husband and wife almost became the meal. In her harrowing memoir, The Bear's Embrace, Van Tighem recounts how on a snow-covered trail the grizzly first attacked Trevor -- chomping his face and leg -- before going after her. She scampered up a tree to escape. She'd been told bears couldn't climb trees. Liar, liar, pants on fire. The bear climbed high enough to knock her down, then proceeded to munch on her head. Van Tighem's description of hearing her own skull being crushed is horrifying, veering as it does between dreamy delirium and cold reality.
Few readers will ever cross paths with a bear, much less be attacked by one, but Van Tighem relates her tale in gracefully unadorned language, avoiding overdramatization at every turn, which lends the proceedings an unmistakable stamp of authenticity.
And the proceedings don't end with the attack.
Survival proved a more bitter pill than death might have been, as Van Tighem was forced to endure several years' worth of horrendously painful reconstructive surgeries on her cheekbones, jaw, and lips, some of which proved useless. She lost much of her scalp and an eye and, toughest of all, this once-pretty woman now forever had to present a mutilated face to the world. What would become of her plans for motherhood, for just-plain-ordinary life, much less happy-ever-after?
It was a situation fraught with endless possibilities for self-pity. Van Tighem doesn't give in to these; nor does she shy away from describing the deep depression and other aftereffects of her ordeal. She describes being plagued by constant fears that the bear -- long since shot and killed by park rangers -- would suddenly reappear and attack her again. She recounts her obsessive need to discuss the attack while her husband, who emerged from his surgeries less disfigured, wished only to forget the whole thing.
Far from a Hallmark-card vision of survivor stories, The Bear's Embrace opens a door on the stark realities of major injury and post-traumatic stress disorder as Van Tighem takes us with her into a series of increasingly harrowing psychiatric hospitals.
And even though this book isn't for the faint of heart -- evincing her training as a nurse, Van Tighem describes injuries and surgery very frankly -- it is eventually uplifting. For like the Disney heroines she once resembled, she perseveres. She and Trevor now have four children, who have helped her accept her new self. "I am a survivor of illness, depression, and a suicide attempt," she reasons near the end of the book, "of a savage anguish rendered voiceless by my fear of rejection."
Sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. That's all Martha Tod Dudman longed for during the 1960s. And, in her case, why strive for anything else? Ensconced in upper-middle-class Washington, DC, she attended a chichi private girls' school where she lounged with the progeny of Capitol elite. Yet her quest turned out not to be so simple after all, as Dudman recounts in her often sad, often wickedly funny memoir Expecting to Fly.
Sex turned out to be a big drag, when fumbling boys blamed her for their own inadequacies. Drugs -- just pot, but it was a big deal back then -- got her expelled from school and incurred the shame of Dudman's beloved parents. Then LSD did little more than confuse her; even after hundreds of trips, enlightenment proved elusive. And her tireless stumping for Democratic presidential hopeful Eugene McCarthy -- whom she calls "our own tall, stooped, gray-haired god with his diffident, quizzical Minnesotan face" -- was all for naught when he was usurped by RFK, who almost won the nomination by "riding on his brother's bloodstained coattails."
Disillusionment in tow, Dudman packed off for Europe with her boyfriend in hopes of a different -- read: better -- life. But living in a van without a toilet would shatter anyone's dreams, so the memoir includes vignettes such as one in which angry Spanish women assail her for having defecated in their street. The women point back and forth from Dudman to her excreta with an aplomb the author recalls as "disgusting, yet somehow impressive," and by some alchemy the reader's sympathies end up with the author, not with those whose neighborhood she has defiled.
After Europe, more disappointment followed when she moved to a West Virginia farm that had no electricity or running water and, discovering that her firmly held beliefs that she was actually making a difference were nothing more than pure illusion, she did an about-face and embraced the straight life.
Today she lives in a small Maine town, where her experience raising not one but two troubled teens inspired a previous book, Augusta, Gone. In a memoir whose relentless honesty makes heroes of no one -- and certainly not the memoirist herself -- Dudman casts new light on a decade fueled by dreams, the vast majority of which ended up in pieces at the dreamers' feet. And like Denby and Van Tighem, she offers perspective on how things might turn out for any and all of us. Hint: You never know what you're gonna get.
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