Bantam, 2008 reprint of 2007 original, 528 pages, $C19.95 tp, ISBN 978-0553384772
Bantam, 2011, 480 pages, $18.00 tp, ISBN 978-0553385441
After watching Martin Scorsese’s hilariously excessive biographical movie The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s tough not to reach for the two books that inspired it all. Legendarily corrupt Wall Street bad-boy Jordan Belfort loves few things more than self-promotion, and it it’s in light that the movie serves as the trailer for the books that seek nothing more than tell us how special Belfort was and continues to be.
And if the preceding paragraph has a bit of a skeptical edge, keep in mind that enjoyment is not a close relative of credulity.
The basics of Belfort’s story are these: He’s a gifted young man who, somewhere in the late eighties, realized that brokers made money out of stock transaction commissions, and that nothing, legally speaking, forced brokers to have their client’s best interest at heart. Once you couple that flash of evil genius with top-notch sales techniques, it’s a relatively easy step to building a company built on selling sub-standard stock to wealthy clients rather than enriching said clients. From there, pump-and-dump schemes are only a short ethical distance away. Profits from the sales accruing to the owner of the firm, you can see how Belfort allegedly made something like forty-nine million dollars on his best year. That, in turn, enabled Belford to indulge in an unchecked succession of drugs (most notably, but not exclusively, qualuudes), prostitutes, lavish decoration and increasingly ludicrous vehicular damages. (damaging cars you can understand, crashing helicopters you can imagine, but losing a yacht is mind-boggling enough.)
But chances are that you’ve seen the movie (a solid box-office performer and a critical favourite) and already know all of this. The point being that if the film is a heightened version of reality, the books aren’t necessarily documentary material. Oh, sure, Belfort has a much harder time in the books than in the film: Scorsese and his screenwriter Terence Winter voluntarily messed with the usual bad-boy-gets-comeuppance narrative to maximize the fun-and-game phase and to gloss over the arrest-and-jail time. Nearly all of Catching the Wolf of Wall Street is spent somewhere inside the judicial system, awaiting trial or experiencing prison. Belfort may have lost his money in both versions of the tale, but the books are quite a bit harsher in pointing out the personal toll of seeing his marriage break up, and feeling his kids grow away from him.
This being said, let’s not minimize the can-you-top-this?! tall-tale quality to both the film and the books. Belfort is a born raconteur, and his life of incredible anecdotes is carefully heightened through engaging narration, carefully chosen details and melodramatic inner monologues. As a Hunter S Thompson fan, I was amused for find a definite Thompsonesque resonance in Belfort’s world-weary omniscient description of drugs and their effects. The books are frequently hilarious and always fascinating, taking us in places where the average middle-class reader will never be able to afford. Hearing Belfort complain about the million-dollars decoration of his former house is… special.
I keep discussing “the books” as if they were one unit, and there’s a reason for that: While the first book is easily better (newer, funnier, fresher) than the second (which does spend a lot of time re-hashing the same life), it’s telling that the film draws inspiration from both, using the more detailed explanations when available. The first book is certainly more entertaining, as it (like the movie) spends very little time detailing the judicial proceedings against Belfort. But the second book uses the structure of a series of interrogations to double back and fill a few holes in Belfort’s life, from his early experiences in business to more ludicrous stories of drug abuse. There is some evidence in the author’s acknowledgements of both books to suggest that Belfort initially wrote a very long narrative that was then re-structured in two separate volumes –the best advice is to read them both back-to-back for the best experience, despite the strong repetitiveness.
But reading even one of the two books raises a really vexing question: Is Belfort truly sorry for defrauding so much money, of is he sorry he got caught? There’s no doubt that Belfort believes himself to be exceptional (in fact, there’s little doubt that, lack of ethics put aside, he is exceptional in remarkable ways), and the overblown quality of his narrative can’t escape a dastardly “Ain’t I a stinker?” twinkle whenever he tells us about his worst moments. Still, some of his excuses in the book feel forced, the kind of things you read in depositions and probation requests and other official documents in which repentance is socially expected. Belfort may truly regret the actions that led him to so much personal turmoil, but the gleeful anecdotes in the books suggest that he wouldn’t change much save for the parts that got him indicted.
As a reader, that leaves us with the mixed feelings of being entertained and repulsed at the same time. Wolves are beautiful but have no place in civilized society, and if Belfort’s books can truly teach us something, it’s a glimpse into the minds of those dangerous high-fliers who think their exceptionalism is an excuse to grab what they can.