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About the Author
DAVID DENBY is on staff as a film critic at The New Yorker and is the author of the bestselling memoir, Great Books, published in 1997. He lives in New York.
Read an Excerpt
By David Denby
Copyright © 2004
All right reserved.
Quarterly Report, January 1, 2000 Cumulative Net Gain/Loss 0
SOMETIME in early January 2000, I became aware that I was jabbering.
I was on the phone, in my little study at home on West End Avenue, in Manhattan,
and speaking as breathlessly as a cattle auctioneer in full cry. Jumping over
verbal fences, mashing participials, dropping qualifiers ... I was talking to an
old friend about movies, and I said something like this: Movie people think
platforming works only with quality-word-of-mouth and slow-building
three-four-million-a-week pictures in which buzz rolls into multiple viewings
like The English Patient or Shakespeare in Love ... I had trouble saying one thing
at a time. I had to say two things, or three, tucking statistics into my words
as I talked, and I seemed to be grouping ideas or pieces of information
rhythmically, by association, rather than by cause and effect. As I hung up, I
wondered, Who is this nut, gathering and expelling information in charged little
clumps, like a Web site spilling bytes?
Babbling-brook behavior is common among journalists, and also, perhaps, among
ambitious New Yorkers, who like to imagine that they are moving on a fasttrack
leading somewhere - to the best table in heaven, perhaps. In part, the habit may
be regional and occupational. Certainly the tempo of Al Gore's discourse, a
procession of potted palms thudding across a wide desert, drove me crazy in that
election year. But, then, it seemed to drive everyone crazy, even people from
the South and the West, so region may have very little to do with it after all.
And journalists, now that I think about it, talk at all speeds. At my magazine,
The New Yorker, no one wastes words, but no one assails his listener like a
jackhammer, either. It isn't dignified. Soon after the phone conversation with
my friend, I thought back over the previous few months. I remembered ranting on
and on at a party. No one interrupted, but no one commented, either. They were
waiting for the storm to pass. Cowed, they sighed and rolled their eyes as if I
were trying to impress them, when from my point of view, I was just trying to
get it all in. What was causing the rush?
By the beginning of 2000, my life had changed in a number of extraordinarily
important ways, but most of it was still in place.
As I saw it, my job, as always, was to build a family, build a career, observe,
observe, learn a few things, write them down, and get them into good enough
shape to publish in a magazine or a book. I was a married, middle-class
professional, a critic and journalist-an Upper West Sider, and therefore one of
God's sober creatures, a householder and provider living among Manhattan's brown
and gray buildings. The Upper West Side was the land of responsibility, a family
neighborhood, hardworking, increasingly prosperous-and pleasureless, some would
say. There were parks, there were dogs, there were many places to buy broccoli
and diapers, to get suits pressed and prescriptions filled.
But there were few elegant people (even the wealthy dressed like assistant
professors), few art galleries or clubs, no wicked entertainments to speak of.
You could walk for blocks without finding so much as a neighborhood bar.
My wife and I had added two boys to the swarm of children laughing and shoving
on Broadway and shooting basketballs at the netless rims in Riverside Park. They
were skinny boys, both of them. We fed them virtuously with fresh vegetables and
fruit purchased at the long produce counters of the great Fairway Market, at
Broadway and 74th. At breakfast, I plowed through the New York Times and the
Wall Street Journal, and at night I watched the news (the stentorian Tom Brokaw,
holding aloft the national virtue) and political chat shows (Chris Matthews
interrupting God as He explained His policies on the third day of creation). I
made my living writing for The New Yorker (and earlier for New York magazine). I
went to Woody Allen movies and sometimes (as a type) appeared in them. I had
been reviewing movies in one place or another since 1969. At the beginning of
the nineties, when it became obvious to anyone with eyes to see that American
movies, under conglomerate control, were not going anyplace wonderful, I wrote
Great Books, in which a middle-aged man-me-slapped himself out of unhappiness by
returning to his undergraduate college (Columbia) and rereading some of the
Western literary and political-theory classics. Defending the books against the
ideological manhandling they were being subjected to from left and right, I had
made a few enemies to be proud of with that book, and a few friends, too, also
to be proud of.
Thus the armature of routine, the thick-barked trunk of family love and work for
a man of fifty-six. But in the months before I heard myself chattering, my daily
habits had changed: I had become obsessed with piling up money, obsessed with
the stock market, and I spent hours most weekdays watching CNBC. The men and
women of financial reporting, my new friends, went on the air every trading day
at five in the morning.
They remained on the air all day, mopping up after the market closed at 4:00
P.M. with various recaps, surveys, predictions, and so on, continuing until
eight, at which point the hard-blowing Matthews and the somber Brian Williams
took over with the less important criminal, political, and constitutional
entertainments of the day. Like several hundred thousand other Americans, I had
become addicted to the reporters on CNBC, our joshing chroniclers of the
national hopes. They were with us.
On New Year's Day of 2000, the market was closed, and I relinquished CNBC and
went to a party. A terrific group had gathered together, teachers, lawyers,
journalists, editors, novelists, smart people, and nice, too -good people -and I
ate smoked salmon and drank mimosas and spoke too rapidly to a great many of
them. I wanted to talk about the market, and they wanted to talk about politics,
journalism, and children, and after a while, I thought, Pleasure! What a waste
of time! Every other weekday morning, I would take my post in the kitchen,
looking at the little TV perched on the granite counter. A half hour, I told
myself. Forty-five minutes, that's all! The kitchen was not a comfortable place
to watch TV. But then, ignoring the cat, Daphne, who rubbed against my shins and
nipped at my ankles, I would sit there for two or three hours, fascinated by the
stock tickers running at the bottom of the image, by the declining thirty-year- bond
yield and the shocking new Producers Price Index Number. Everything that
happens in the market is related to every other thing; it is a gigantic puzzle
whose parts move as unceasingly as the tentacles of an underwater creature. It
was all new to me-the Consumer Confidence Index! Wow!-and I was amazed. Even
though I knew that some of what they said was hooey, I sat patiently through
interviews with strategists from the big brokerage houses, with CEOs and money
managers, with gurus and savants of various sorts who spread their blankets and
displayed their urns and gourds and gave their opinions of shifting currents in
the bazaar. It was a rattle of semi-worthless but spellbinding words. I loved
Speaking over the din of a brokerage trading floor, many of the CNBC reporters
and their guests raced like corsairs. They had very little airtime in which to
say complicated things. But more than that, they were driven by the tempo of the
market itself, the pulsing, darting flow of money around the globe, all of it
intensified, as the CNBC anchors broke for commercials, by that rhythmic
clickety-clack of electronic noise needled by a snare drum ...
dig-a-dig-a-dig-a-dig-a-DIG-a-dig-a ... Were all the beats the same? Or were
there, as I imagined, little emphases which turned the pulse into the music of
money? Speed was inside my head, and I couldn't get it out.
At that moment, in early 2000, you were sure that if you could just grab hold of
the flying coattails of the New Economy investments, you could get rich very
quickly. The newspapers and CNBC were filled with stories of
twenty-four-year-old millionaires, start-up companies going through the roof,
initial public offerings outlandishly doubling and tripling their price on their
first day of trading. And the market! In the previous year, 1999, the Nasdaq
composite index went up 85.6 percent; it went up by more than 39 percent the
year before. And, as the market soared, you could feel it. You would have to be
insensible not to feel it. All around, in the suddenly resplendent corporate
pomp of once-dreary San Jose in Silicon Valley; in the crisp linen and sparkle
of a downtown Manhattan restaurant at lunchtime; in the fatted pages of new and
brazenly successful Internet magazines like the Industry Standard-in all these
places and many more, you could sense the thrilling, oxygen-rich happiness of
wealth being created overnight.
My urgency was driven by hunger. Making money seemed a function of quickness,
and in the market, more than anywhere else, you experienced time as the instant
dead past. The market underlines the mystery and terror of time: It never stops.
As I sat there in the kitchen watching CNBC, there was only the next instant,
and the next, rushing toward you, and I kept trying to catch up. In Times
Square, across the street from The New Yorker's office, the news headlines and
stock results from Dow Jones -"the zipper"-flashed around the corners of the
old Times tower. My eyes would travel with a group of words until they hit the
corner and disappeared. That was time, always moving on:
No one could pull the words back. Either read them or lose the information
forever. The zipper made me slightly ill, and there were much more powerful
zippers around. Using the Internet as a speed lane, an ideally informed person
would never sleep at all but would trade the markets and chase news and rumors
through the links twenty-four hours a day. What bliss! What a nightmare! The
market, it turns out, is the quintessence of instability in the Information Age,
the perfect paradigm of life as ceaseless change. That is why it is so
mesmerizing, so defeating, and, again, so mesmerizing.
I needed to make money, serious money, that year. Not for the usual reasons that
prosperous people want to have more cash. I did not want to buy a villa in
Tuscany or a BMW 540i or the Lynx $7,692 gas grill with dual smoker drawers.
What in the world could you do with such a resplendent cooking apparatus?
Barbecue gold-leafed weenies on it? In all, I was quite sure that I was not the
patsy-victim of the standard smug liberal critique -the American who does not
know that money can't buy happiness.
No, I didn't want to buy anything in particular. I wanted the money so I could
hold on to something very important to me. For I had already lost something of
incomparable value - not a possession, but the center of my life-and I was in
danger of losing a great deal else.
At the beginning of 1999, a year earlier, my wife, Cathleen Schine, announced
that she no longer wanted to be married to me. She had to leave, she had to get
away for a new life, for she had mysteriously changed in her affections. Not
just in her affections.
She had changed in her being, and she was no longer whole, she was broken, and I
was not the one to fix what was wrong.
The announcement was not altogether a surprise. She had been slipping away for a
few years, withdrawing into quiet or studied indifference. I couldn't get her to
talk about it, she was holding it inside. She didn't mean to hurt me, I now
think, but sitting in bed at night reading or speaking on the phone, she was
unreachable -and then sleepy and irritable. I stood there like a rejected
petitioner, chewing on my innards but unwilling to fight.
"I have to go to sleep now." "But I want to talk."
Talk was the center; we used to talk over everything, endlessly. But in those
bad years a polite silence had descended on the marriage, darkened on my side
with foreboding and on hers with unhappiness. She was increasingly depressed.
Dark circles appeared under her eyes, she became immobile-the bed was her home,
her fortress. And then she wanted to get away. "If you really loved me, you
would want me to be happy," she said on the day in 1999 when she first said she
wanted to leave, a sentence that no lover ever wants to hear. She was sitting in
bed, miserable. I was pacing around the bedroom, in a sweat.
"I love you," she said. "But I can't live with you anymore." For a full year
after her announcement, I tried to keep the marriage together. We continued to
live in the same apartment with the two boys, Max, who turned sixteen in June of
1999, and Thomas, who turned twelve the same month. But she was elsewhere, as
remote as a beauty queen on a float drifting down the street to the cheers of
other crowds farther and farther away.
I didn't break down, or stop working. A shipshape magazine like The New Yorker
doesn't let its writers fall into the sea. Good words must be written, and I
wrote some of them. But there was a gathering heaviness in my chest and a
feeling of forlornness, as if the roof had come flying off my head. Over that
year of 1999, it came off piece by piece, as in a slow-motion movie of a storm,
first the corners flapping and rising, and then the shingles lifting, a few at a
time, then a few more, and then the whole thing violently tearing away in a
gale. I was in love with my wife, novelist Cathleen Schine, and proud of the
marriage, too, which seemed to me an astounding yet permanent fact in the world,
like some comet that kept flying forever. It had lasted for eighteen years, and
I couldn't believe it was over. I couldn't take it in; I was sure there had to
be some mistake, some error, something we had forgotten, some place in the past
we could go back to-a niche, a landing where we could reassemble and start
At night, I paced around the room while she sat sorrowfully in bed. Some
pleasure that we still shared, some experience! A moment in the country, a piece
of music, an adventure with the kids. We could repeat that moment, rediscover
that quality, and remember what we had lost. But she could no longer join me
For almost two decades, I had felt that no thought of mine was complete until I
had conveyed it to her. A new movie-I was full of news about movies, since I
reviewed them for a living. The cost of fish at Citarella, another of the local
markets on Broadway. Darwin sitting on the giant tortoise's back in the
Galapagos Islands, rapping his stick on the shell to get the beast to move-we
had loved that image and had gone to the Gala together.
Excerpted from American Sucker
by David Denby
Copyright © 2004 by David Denby.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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