Warner, 1987, 372 pages, C$6.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-35325-6
Like many North-Americans in early 2004, I was taken by the reality-TV show “The Apprentice”, a series in which sixteen ambitious tyros competed to become one of Donald Trump’s cadre of executives. It’s easy to see why the series was such a success: Beyond the good visuals and taut storytelling of Mark (“Survivor”) Burnett’s production, the series revolved around a larger-than-life character. At a time where the reality-TV craze was in danger of crumbling upon itself for being too close to the boredom of reality itself, “The Apprentice” went the other way and found what is nearly a fictional character in a fictional environment: Donald J. Trump in New York City.
You will not find any explicit reference to “The Apprentice” in Trump: The Art of the Deal (it is, after all, a 1987 book), but it doesn’t really matter: Trump is Trump, and even the 1987 version of himself has all the hallmarks of the gruff 2004 reality show superstar. In the “real world” interval, Trump nearly went bankrupt in the early nineties and then climbed his way to a vast fortune all over again. So reading his portrait as he stood on top of the world in the late eighties makes it appear as if nothing serious had happened in the interval; certainly, Trump’s self-assurance is identical.
Certainly, there aren’t many better book from which to learn about the man himself. He has published other books since (including the aptly-titled “Trump: The Art of the Comeback”), but this first one is closest to a straight-up autobiography, complete with childhood recollections, the adventures of a budding tycoon in midtown Manhattan and the making of his first blockbuster deals. After reading this book, it’s easy to see where Trump comes from: a father already familiar with the workings of real-estate deals and a thirst to do even better. It’s an interesting story even though it’s not exactly a rags-to-riches one. (Young Donald Trump, without being very rich, was comfortably set by just about any measure.)
But Trump: The Art of the Deal is more than an autobiography and a recollection of biggest deals: It’s first and foremost a tribute to, well, the sacred art of the deal. Through Trump’s advice and recollections, it’s easy to see what is so attractive about deal-making. It is, after all, what best defines Trump and what he does. How to negotiate and get something from someone else while still both feeling good about it. The book is stuffed with complex wheeling and dealing with dozens of stakeholders and tight deadlines. It’s hard, through it all, not to develop a stunned admiration for anyone with the sheer audacity to go after such negotiations. Anyone with an interest in business probably has a copy of the book already: it’s just such a great primer on business.
For fans of “The Apprentice”, the book also details the making of several of the show’s backdrops, from the Wolfram Ice Rink to the world-renowned Trump Tower. (Warning: Many of the references may be wasted on anyone not familiar with the eighties’ New York City) Great stories in almost all cases, even as Trump doesn’t miss an occasion to blast bureaucracy, tenants, politicians and the media. As with all great works of propaganda and self-aggrandizement (and I say this in the best sense of the term), we read the book firmly on Trump’s side even as our natural sympathies may actually rest with the opposition. (Has anyone ever compiled a “companion guide” detailing the context, alternate viewpoints and ultimate fate of people, projects and places mentioned in the book?)
Now, it’s ridiculous to imagine Trump carefully poring over the prose of this book and so considerable credit must be given to his co-author Tony Schwartz. The best measure of his success is that the written Trump sounds almost exactly like the Trump we know from the media: You can easily imagine his brash no-nonsense voice narrating the book’s chapters. It also helps that it is compulsively readable like few other business books: Packed with great anecdotes and glimpses in the life of the rich, busy and powerful, Trump: The Art of the Deal is just a terrific piece of entertainment.
What is certain is that the story of Donald J. Trump is far from being over yet: He may have seven books to his credit already, but with decades to go in the shaky world of business, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next to “The Donald”. But to judge from his story, his charisma and his appreciation for the art of the deal, it’s a safe bet that he’s never going to be all that far away from the public eye.
[June 2004: Trump: Surviving at the Top, his 1990 follow-up tome, is more of the same, without the novelty interest but with an interesting look at a Trump on the verge of his early-nineties troubles. His marital difficulties are briefly discussed, but once again it’s The Donald’s dealmaking that deserves center-stage.]
[July 2016: I’m not going to discuss Trump’s presidential run, but anyone interested in The Art of the Deal should take a look at the recollections of its ghostwriter, nearly thirty years later.]