Thanks to the recent success of movie versions of The Blind Side and Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ cultural profile has hit a new high. Boomerang: Travels In The New Third World collects five of the journalist’s $10-a-word pieces for Vanity Fair and shows that he’s freakishly consistent at earning the fee. The argumentative, entertainingly written, unabashedly partisan pieces find him doing what he does best: lucidly denouncing outrages plaguing the world’s financial markets, and profiling the unlikely protagonists correctly diagnosing doom and offering unconventional solutions against overwhelming establishment opposition.
All that cultural prominence has led to some backlash against these five pieces, which examine financial dysfunction in Iceland, Greece, Ireland, and Germany before returning to the States to examine California’s downward spiral. In all five, Lewis links cultural characteristics to monetary malfeasance, repeatedly returning to the image of entire countries “let into the dark room with the pile of money, and asked what they would like to do with it.” While Lewis’ attempt to link German financial indiscretions to an apparent national fixation with excrement prompted some publications to publish skeptical condemnations of his diagnosis as rooted in stereotypes and unwonted assumptions, it still makes for fun reading, with unapologetically bold assertions linking fine observational travel writing and lucid expositions of what went wrong. To suck in readers who might have trouble keeping up with financial specifics, Lewis regularly breaks for local color, from Icelanders’ weary reactions to being asked about Björk (“Of course they’ve met Björk; who hasn’t met Björk?”) to the persistent Irish belief in the existence of fairies.
Because Lewis has established his formula so well over the years and executed it so consistently, it’s hard not to be a little suspicious of all the plucky last-sane-man individualists he finds; for lay readers, it’s also necessary to simply accept his financial diagnoses as accurate. He nonetheless remains the rare financial journalist who thinks narratively, and his final closing portrait of California on the brink of default is grimly bracing. After taking a bike ride with former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (who describes his political experience as “so much fun!”), Lewis arrives in Vallejo, which in 2008 became the largest Californian city to ever declare bankruptcy, and whose city hall boasts a sign meekly asking those who’ve arrived to snap up the doomed property not to do business in the lobby. For all the joking and pointed observations, Lewis has rarely been this consistently, righteously indignant, and the final essay underlines the need to look at American finance and business from any fresh perspective possible.