Ugly Americans, Ben Mezrich

Morrow, 2004, 271 pages, C$38.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-057500-X

After a moderate success as a thriller writer, Ben Mezrich finally found the winning formula with Bringing down the House, a book that blended true facts, blackjack-beating tricks, big winnings and fictional narrative tricks in order to give readers a taste of fast-earned money.  He repeated the formula with Busting Vegas, but in-between those two gambling books came Ugly Americans, “The True Story of Ivy League Cowboys Who Raided the Asian Markets for Millions”.  Some kinds of business, after all, are nothing more than high-stakes gambling and in telling this story, Mezrich describes the life of a young trader who went to Japan and made a small fortune betting even bigger fortunes.

In some ways, Ugly Americans complements the story of Nick Leeson, the infamous British trader who found himself free to bet big from a faraway Asian trading outpost of the venerable Barings… and literally broke the bank.  The nineties were a good time for traders willing to exploit the wild and mercurial nature of the Asian markets: There weren’t as many players over there than in the saturated American and European markets, the regulations were quite a bit looser than on Wall Street and the line between legal and illegal activity was considerably thinner, much like the line separating organized crime from legitimate business activity.

It’s in that context that ex-footballer and recent graduate “John Malcolm” is hired to execute orders from an expatriate trader living in Japan.  Sent to Osaka despite knowing next to nothing about Japan, Malcolm grows under the tutelage of his boss, experiences a massive earthquake first-hand, falls for the daughter of a well-connected businessman, finds himself working far too close to Nick Leeson and survives in-between loud bar crawls, conspicuous consumption and power demonstration by elements of the Yakusa.

There’s something both exhilarating and repellent in Mezrich’s trademark glorification of people having more money than sense.  The fact that they are making it from trades rather than gambling makes little difference in the way Mezrich portrays them.  Fast cars, expensive prostitutes and wild parties: These, apparently, are what money gets you if you’re in the right place and the right time to take advantage of the system.  Just like a sports movie, Ugly Americans ends with a Big Score that allows the protagonist to step back from the madness, but not before (in Mezrich’s familiar dramatic arc) a friend is severely affected by the rough trade in which they are involved.  You can almost feel the author react gleefully to the presence of the Yakuza in his story: They’re the perfect shadowy menace, acting in all-powerful positions within a Japanese society that is, we’re told in not-so-subtle terms, inseparable from organized crime.

But what are a few xenophobic comments for an audience looking for a few thrills?  It’s not as if Merzich swears fealty to truth: Like his other so-called non-fiction books, he obscures enough details to protect the identity of his sources and rearranges so many events for maximal drama that the entire narrative can be read as fiction.

What’s more embarrassing to admit is that it works: Ugly Americans is a quick and enjoyable read, a vicarious look at another culture and a completely different lifestyle.  It’s best to ignore some of Mezrich’s most obviously pumped-up melodramatic moments (although the juxtaposition of an ethics class with a description of the Leeson meltdown is worth a few smirks) but otherwise Ugly Americans is a splendid read halfway between a confabulating business memoir and a practical advice manual on why westerners should avoid doing business in Asia.

This isn’t to say that the real story is unavailable to those who want to dig a bit.  A quick look at online reviews of the book will uncover a number of revealing mistakes, and a few credible-sounding guesses as to the identity of the trader on which Ugly Americans is based.  People who know quite a bit more about trading –and more specifically westerners trading in Japan during the mid-nineties– will be able to piece together the real story and point out which part of the book are obvious nonsense.  For the rest of us, though, it’s another typical Mezrich dramatic non-fiction book; good enough to escape and imagine life as a high-roller, moral scruples temporarily suspended.

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