- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2002

By Scott Lasser
Knopf, $24, 243 pages

Riches for your soul. The Faustian bargain pops up all over Western culture, not only in Wolfgang von Goethe's epic. Charlie Sheen pondered life on the balcony of his swanky Manhattan apartment in the 1980s movie "Wall Street" and asked: "Who am I?"
In Scott Lasser's new novel, Barry Schwartz does the same thing in more or less the same place. Mr. Schwartz gives up a hand-to-mouth existence skimping on basic foodstuffs for him and his family in a Western mountain town.
The riches of Wall Street lure them. Only temporarily, he assures his wife, until they have enough money to lead the life they want, not the one they always seem to get stuck with.
The problem, of course, is that Wall Street sticks them with another life. This one involves a daily 6 a.m. meeting in a parking lot to drive 45 minutes into Manhattan for a job trading government bonds. There, tyrannical bosses, office politics and assorted other stresses remind Schwartz that he is no longer the ski bum of old. The quiet weekends with the family become a haven in a heartless world.
Until Barry Schwartz turns heartless himself. First he gets a promotion. Then a big bonus. Then, he uses the unrest created by a coup attempt on the part of another office mate to stage one of his own. Suddenly, Schwartz is running things, and with the resultant ego, he thinks he can handle an extramarital affair as well. He can't.
The novel moves briskly, and that's a good thing because its themes are obvious enough that few readers will need much time to digest them. In fact they seem a little, well, old. We have just come off a decade during which fathers and sons and plenty of mothers and daughters sank their lives into business. It wasn't Wall Street that caught the public's imagination in the 1990s but rather technology. Still, the attitude was much the same.
But that phase is over now it was probably wrapping up just as Mr. Lasser was proofing the galleys for his novel. An economic slowdown that has pushed tens of thousands out of work, and the embryonic recovery has not created many new jobs.
Then there was September 11, and the threat of more terrorism. The old sop to the destitute, "You've still got your health." seems halfway plausible these days.
Prescisely this zeitgeist dampens the message delivered by Mr. Lasser in "All I Could Get." Barry Schwartz's ill-advised choice to bet his family on a pocketful of silver and an affair might have struck a chord circa 1999. Nowadays, it reads like a chronicle of a guy who hasn't been watching the news. At the same time, it falls short of being a more durable work about the spiritual poverty of riches that a precious few American authors have delievered convincingly, despite the country's predilection for turbocharged capitalism.
The book is a lively look at the harried culture of bond traders on the Street. Mr. Lasser deftly injects the details of how the traders themselves drop millions on a single trade, and get good at keeping score in their heads. The offices are sweaty, the work at once stressful and mundane. The days turn into weeks, the weeks into months and the months lead to bonus day, which is all the holidays wrapped up into one.
The detail was collected firsthand. Mr. Lasser once worked as a trader himself at Lehman Brothers in New York, has an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, and lives in Snowmass, Colo., with his family. In a work of nonfiction, Mr. Lasser wrote in the New Yorker magazine last April how he worked on the Street but left with his sanity intact and a final year's bonus in his pocket.
The magazine piece makes the busy reader's life much easier. No time? Read the article and imagine a different, less happy ending in which a stressful life at this kind of work feeds a man's ambition, which then tears him away from his wife and children. And you've got "All I Could Get" in a nutshell.

Carter Dougherty is a an international trade reporter on the business desk of The Washington Times.

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