There was a time when I would’ve told you there was no writer who I trusted more than Michael Lewis, author of more bestselling nonfiction books than I can count, including “Moneyball,” “The Blind Side,” “Flash Boys” and “The Big Short.”
Lewis has been particularly insightful when it comes to matters of finance. “The Big Short” manages to unpack the origins of the 2008 meltdown in a way that brings both the characters who saw the disaster coming to life, and makes the financial ins and outs explicable.
One of the hallmarks of Lewis’ method is to base the narrative around a central figure, an iconoclast who simply sees the world differently, and in those differences gains a special advantage. In “Moneyball,” it was Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. In “The Big Short,” it was Michael Burry, a neurodivergent genius who shorted the entire U.S. housing market in advance of the implosion of the market for mortgage-backed securities.
Lewis is back in the world of finance with “Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon,” the very inside story of Sam Bankman-Fried, founder of cryptocurrency exchange FTX, who is currently on trial for one of the largest alleged frauds in financial history.
In Lewis’ telling, Bankman-Fried is yet another oddball with few feelings, who thinks any question can be boiled down to a rational analysis, including whether or not Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers of all time. (Bankman-Fried thinks not.)
Lewis was embedded with Bankman-Fried before a run on the exchange revealed an essential insolvency and a hinky relationship between FTX and Alameda, a hedge fund controlled by FTX that allegedly used customer deposits in FTX to do its own investing, the focus of the current fraud trial.
I went into the book expecting to glean insights from Lewis as to how Bankman-Fried’s machinations went so wrong, but the deeper one gets into the story, the more it dawns on the reader that Lewis intends the book as a kind of exoneration, another one of Lewis’ stories about a misunderstood genius.
Now, it’s important to remember that as of this writing, Bankman-Fried has not been convicted of any crime yet, but it’s also notable that several of his former FTX/Alameda colleagues have already confessed to various illegalities, and the early days of testimony at the trial paint a picture, at the very least, of someone who, if they aren’t a crook, is nothing like a “tycoon” either. In fact, it appears that whatever success that FTX enjoyed — celebrity endorsements, Super Bowl Ads — was entirely illusory, not a good idea gone bad, but a non-idea that was destined to collapse.
The story seems more like Theranos, memorably exposed by John Carreyrou in “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup,” than one of Lewis’ typical underdog/iconoclast tales.
I wish I knew what went wrong, if Lewis simply got too close to his subject, or maybe hubris has caught up to him over the years, but “Going Infinite” is deeply strange when juxtaposed against the public record of the trial.
Sure, it’s possible Lewis is right and Bankman-Fried’s own colleagues and government prosecutors and the rest of the financial world observers are wrong, that he was simply a maverick inventing something new that might have run afoul of the old ways of doing things, rather than a form of fraud updated for the digital age.
But the more likely conclusion is that Bankman-Fried is exactly what he appears to be, and Lewis has written a tale that is a poor reflection of reality.
John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”
Book recommendations from the Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read.
1. “The Bee Sting” by Paul Murray
2. “Time Shelter” by Georgi Gospodinov
3. “Old God’s Time” by Sebastian Barry
4. “Happiness Falls” by Angie Kim
5. “The Bird Hotel” by Joyce Maynard
— Sari K., Riverwoods, IL
I think Tana French’s “The Searcher” offers the story and atmosphere that Sari is looking for in a good read.
1. “Annals of the Former World” by John McPhee
2. “The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life” by Boyd Varty
3. “Vivian Maier Developed: The Untold Story of the Photographer Nanny” by Ann Marks
4. “This Tender Land” by William Kent Krueger
5. “The Music of Bees” by Eileen Garvin
— Dave L., Chicago
For Dave, I’m recommending a novel with great warmth and sly humor at the center that also has some tremendous recipes in it, “Search” by Michelle Huneven.
1. “The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder” by David Grann
2. “The Border Trilogy” by Cormac McCarthy
3. “Poverty, by America” by Matthew Desmond
4. “South of the Border, West of the Sun” by Haruki Murakami
5. “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” by James McBride
— Bill F., Chicago
For Bill, I’m recommending a book I think of as both intimate and epic, “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki.
Get a reading from the Biblioracle
Send a list of the last five books you’ve read and your hometown to firstname.lastname@example.org.