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BOOK REVIEW

In 'Rigged,' Mezrich ups the ante on Wall Street

BEN MEZRICH BEN MEZRICH (T. Chen)
Email|Print| Text size + By Chuck Leddy
December 27, 2007

Rigged: The True Story of an Ivy League Kid Who Changed the World of Oil, From Wall Street to Dubai, By Ben Mezrich, Morrow, 294 pp., $24.95

Boston's Ben Mezrich is best known for writing fast-paced, testosterone-fueled nonfiction narratives about smart young hustlers (usually with MIT or Harvard degrees) who beat the odds, make a fast financial killing, and enjoy lifestyles of over-the-top luxury. In best-selling books like "Bringing Down the House" and "Busting Vegas," Mezrich's hyper-ambitious heroes outsmart Las Vegas casinos. That the hero of "Rigged" works for the New York Mercantile Exchange ("the Merc") says more about recent developments in American financial markets than about changes in the author's concept of gambler heroism.

Today those markets increasingly work like Las Vegas casinos. In one kitschy scene, Mezrich describes a glitzy New York business party featuring a performance by singer Tom Jones. The Merc, a male-dominated world where billions are made and lost trading oil futures, offers tough-as-nails traders (known as "meatheads") a high-stakes game of risk and reward. In "Rigged," the folks with the most brains and guts (i.e., those who are least risk-averse) win big. While readers might want to categorize Mezrich's social Darwinism as a kind of macho adolescent fantasy, his fictional worldview fairly reflects our national mania for financial speculation.

The book's hero is David Russo of Brooklyn, who studied at Oxford and later Harvard Business School. As Mezrich repeatedly reminds us, Russo is more street-smart and scrappy than intellectual. As a member of the Oxford crew team, he once punched a rival rower in the face, nearly being expelled for his breach of conduct. He can hold his liquor too, and can, if challenged, exchange expletive-laden insults with anyone. On his first day at the Merc, in September 2002, Russo witnesses the competitive, roughhouse chaos of the trading floor: "The Merc was Atlantic City - on crack." Needless to say, Russo will need more than his Harvard degree to thrive here.

Mezrich brings us inside the locker-room world of Merc traders. Fortunately for Russo, most of them are ambitious, trash-talking Italian kids like him. After Russo stands up to a bouncer in a bar frequented by meatheads, he's slowly accepted into their subculture of expensive liquor, strip clubs, and swaggering money worship. Yet not all the traders like Russo.

The villain of "Rigged" is a curmudgeonly old-school trader named Dominick Gallo, who insults Russo at their first meeting and thereafter. The Brooklyn-born Gallo is part Donald Trump and part Tony Soprano. We know he's a villain because Mezrich describes his eyes as "venomous slits" and because he brandishes a baseball bat at Russo, warning him, "You don't walk into my neighborhood and try to take what's mine."

Of course, a deal is at the center of Mezrich's narrative. It begins when Russo is sent to Dubai, the Middle Eastern emirate that's a burgeoning business center, where he meets Khaled Abdul-Aziz, a well-connected nephew of a wealthy sheik. Abdul-Aziz proposes partnering with Russo's Merc in opening a mercantile exchange in Dubai that would trade oil futures. Like Russo, Abdul-Aziz is ambitious, and he convinces the American that the deal makes sense. Dubai, with its glittering luxury hotels, racetracks, and filthy-rich expatriate community, does as much to cement the deal as Abdul-Aziz.

There are obstacles, of course. Russo feels some anti-Arab sentiment at the Merc after 9/11 but learns to enjoy the "champagne and caviar" lifestyle Dubai represents. Gallo opposes the plan, but once everyone jets to Dubai to stay in hotels "right out of Donald Trump's fantasies," the deal gets done. As long as Arabs and Americans can work together making billions speculating on the high price of oil, the traders believe, the world will surely be a better place.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

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