Thursday, November 24, 2005

Recently Read: Funny Money by Mark Singer

I realized I was becoming a New Yorker type recently, so I subscribed to the magazine. (Still not sure if that's good or bad; am I becoming one of those snooty intellectuals?)

What I mean by New Yorker type is that I found I was reading a lot of New Yorker writers, and looking for more. It probably started with the great classic humorists - Perelman, Benchley and Thurber - who I've been reading for about a decade now. I also discovered Calvin Trillin in the early '90s, and have now found (and read) nearly all of his books. And then I drifted into reportage, and eventually found Mark Singer. (Not fiction, though - I've been getting the New Yorker for three or four months now, and haven't read a single piece of fiction in it yet. But there is a Haruki Murakami piece in the issue I'm working through now, so that streak will soon be broken.)

I read Singer's Mr. Personality a few months back; that's a collection of profiles from the New Yorker, and I enjoyed it a lot. Singer was good at showing interesting people in the context of their lives, and his writing was lively and engrossing. So, the next time I was at my favorite bookstore (Montclair Book Center of Montclair New Jersey, plug plug), I grabbed a copy of Singer's first book.

And I just finished it on Tuesday; it took quite a bit longer than I expected (for reasons that I think will be clear over the next few paragraphs). Funny Money is the story of an Oklahoma City bank that went bust in 1984; the book was published in 1985, so there's very little about the aftermath and a lot about what happened before. I didn't enjoy this one all that much, I'm sorry to say. (In fact, I got awfully sleepy reading it several times, but that's happening a lot lately, so it might not be the book's fault.)

Singer doesn't develop a strong storyline; I suspect that he's from the school of reportage that doesn't want to impose a story on events, but tells them as they happened. That's fine when there already is a story, but in something as amorphous as a bank failure, he ends up with a lot of sidebar and no center. This book then tends to sprawl, even though it's only 222 pages long.

Singer also spends a lot of time sketching various characters involved in the crash, but I couldn't tell them apart. They're all larger-than-life oil folks, described in similar terms; Singer does give a lot of physical details (this guy's tall, that one chews tobacco, and so on), but I'm not a visual reader, so none of that helped. They all seemed, more or less, to be the same guy, so their interlocking financial shenanigans were not terribly engrossing. This was quite disappointing after Mr. Personality, where all of the people profiled were well-defined and different from each other.

Another problem with Funny Money, in hindsight, is that there have been many much larger bank failures before, and, especially, since. If he'd done a bit more analysis and less I-went-here-and-talked-to-this-guy reportage, this book might have been an interesting prelude to the savings and loan crisis just a few years later (or a more general meditation on the interface between energy and money). As it is, though, it's very specific and particular, and never draws larger conclusions.

I was hoping this book would give me a little background on the intersection of high finance and "th' awl bidness," and it did, a little. But it's a book of its time and place (late '70s and early '80s Oklahoma City) rather than a book for the ages, and so will be primarily of interest these days only to people who care about that time and place. And I don't.

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