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Exchange student (continued)

In a recent article in Vanity Fair, Derek Walcott describes David Denby as "grounded, deliberative" and "stuffy." The critic bristles when reminded of this characterization, but it doesnít seem so far off the mark. When bringing a visitor a glass of water, he places it on a little blue saucer, although the table beneath it has the veneer of an old shoe. Thatís just the kind of guy he is ó cautious to a fault. So how does someone like this get embroiled in such a madcap, fantastical scheme? "Iím an obsessive," Denby says. "I have serial obsessions. I became obsessed with the market out of personal, you know, stress. With disastrous results."

Denbyís market mania, as mentioned, did at least cure him of his fleeting infatuation with pixilated sex. "I had fallen into a kind of cave," he says of those dark days in 1999. "I was looking at pornography on the Internet, which is not a healthy thing for anyone to do because itís addictive. Exposing myself to risk by throwing that money into the market got the blood pumping again. With Cathy having left, I needed that adrenaline pumping, to feel like I wasnít recessing or dying in some way. Itís all there in Dostoyevskyís little novel The Gambler: the guy isnít fully alive until heís on the verge of falling into the abyss. I was acting out my grief in a way that made me feel alive. It brought me out of my cave."

Writing American Sucker, Denby says, was "a kind of therapy, because it gave form to this strange behavior." The book may also, one imagines, serve to cut his financial losses. All the same, the author is aware that there are risks to publishing a memoir like this. For one thing, by exposing his peculiarities and peccadilloes, Denby leaves himself open to ridicule, which he has duly received (a Google search for "Denby" produces a site, three results from the top of the list, in which details of the authorís online escapades share space with "Lara Flynn Boyle and anus bleaching" and "Booty bumping and disco dumping"). Denby, an intensely private person, is clearly made uncomfortable by such attention. "I decided I would follow this thing wherever it led," he says, shrinking into his chair a little, "even if it led to humiliating disclosures."

Itís not humiliation that leaves Denby vulnerable to attack, though. Americans can forgive abject failure, naïveté, even a streak of avarice. What we cannot forgive is when these things are apparent in someone who has it better than we do. Denby, even prior to landing a job at the New Yorker, was no stranger to privilege. He was born, he writes, into the "old genteel middle class." Before he plunged into the market, he and his wife had squirreled away something like a million bucks in savings. Even now, he is far from destitute. There is a temptation, reading American Sucker, to respond with, "Aw, diddums." Denby, for his part, is well aware that his story may inspire a certain amount of eye-rolling. "Itís all a matter of tone," he says. "I would phrase and rephrase to find emotions that would not make such a demand of sympathy on the reader that they would get disgusted."

All the same, some observers were disgusted by American Sucker. In a chillingly bad review in the Washington Post, Chris Lehmann wrote that the book betrayed "an unsightly mixture of pompous petulance and stubborn entitlement." Lehmannís piece, which went on practically to roar disapproval at Denbyís "greed," clearly rattled the author. "These nasty reviews in the Post and the Observer," he says (the New York Observer also panned the book), "they complained that ĎOh, this guy had a lot of money and why should we care?í But what is the right amount of money to have or to lose in order to write a book like this? More? Less?"

At this point, Denbyís voice rises a little in pitch, his expression grows a little more intense, and Martin Amisís memorable description of the cineastes he encountered at Cannes comes to mind: "Their eyes are angry red holes." For a critic, Denby doesnít take criticism very well. "The thing is," he continues, "quote-unquote intellectuals are not supposed to write openly about money. The literary gents have been angry that I would talk about these things. It hurts to be panned, particularly if you feel you havenít been dealt with fairly. Iíve panned a fair number of people, but I try to do my job professionally and actually relate to whatís on the screen and not to obsessions or angers in my own head."

You have to wonder, though. At an investment conference he attends early in American Sucker, Denby gazes admiringly at "the groaning board of bottled water, freshly squeezed citrus, and bagels," as if these things represented the bounty awaiting him at the end of the tech-stock rainbow. Later, as he finds himself ankle deep in the goo of the popped bubble, he mopes around conference halls asking questions like, "Why are American hotels so ugly?" Understandably, the closer Denby gets to the abyss, the grumpier he becomes, and there would seem to be a real possibility that his increasingly jaundiced outlook may have bled into his work ó that Keanu Reeves and Angelina Jolie and Mark Wahlberg may have borne the brunt of the fallen investorís wrath. Denby is having none of this. "Iíve been doing this for a long time, 35 years in one place or another," he sniffs. "I certainly didnít become more negative."

Finally, there is the question of what effect a book like this might have on the status of the critic himself. When we read a review, we tend to think of the person doing the reviewing as a kind of machine, going about the business of judging the merits of a book or a movie or a play with faceless objectivity. By baring himself as he does in American Sucker ó revealing himself as a passionate, fallible, even idiotic human being ó Denby is raising the curtain a little, giving us a glimpse of the person pulling the strings. There would seem to be no small measure of risk involved in such an enterprise.

"Youíre absolutely right, it is a dangerous thing to do, and there are a lot of people who donít want it done," Denby says. "Because whether they agree with you or not, people do want the critic to be a kind of impersonal authority. But there was no other way to write this book. I suppose I just have to continue writing good reviews, just keep on going." He adds, "I finished one yesterday, about Charlize Theron in Monster." Indeed he did: "[T]he picture is in the tradition of Nicholas Rayís They Live by Night, Arthur Pennís Bonnie and Clyde, and Terrence Malickís Badlands, though it hasnít been made with the conscious art of any of those movies." Astute, erudite, and not particularly exciting. Classic Denby.

Things are getting back to normal for Denby now. Heís moved into his own "wreck" of a place on the Upper West Side. Heís learned to budget himself a little better. Heís content with what he has. "Iíve fallen in love and have been with the same woman for 16 months, my friend Susan," he says. "I spend a lot of time with my boys, and the movies are there always. The New Yorker is quite a compelling place, in the literal sense of compelling, in that you have to do well or else theyíll throw it back at you and tell you to re-do it. You canít slip off the track."

There seems little chance of this ó at least as far his professional life is concerned. Denby is a good writer, and he has a good career going for him ó a staffer at one of the premier magazines in the country, if not the world, a successful book under his belt, and another that seems fated to go the same way. But there may yet be clouds on the horizon. "I havenít kicked the stock market," Denby says, sipping tea from a mug. "And Iím glad I didnít. If you get out altogether after taking a big loss, you miss the recovery. If you go off somewhere and lick your wounds, thatís a way of being stupid twice."

Of all the ink that has been spilled over American Sucker, perhaps the most insightful words came not from a critic, but from a financial writer in the Daily Record. Itís not a particularly elegant review ó in fact, itís a little on the clunky side. All the same, David Denby would do well to pay heed to its message: "Denby is unusually intelligent and well-read ... but he really doesnít know much about investing."

David Denby reads from American Sucker at the Brookline Booksmith on February 10, at 7 p.m. Call (617) 566-6660. Chris Wright can be reached at cwright@phx.com

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Issue Date: January 30 - February 5, 2004
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