'Ghosts of Manhattan': Love and debauchery on Wall Street

Douglas Brunt's debut novel makes the financial collapse of 2008 all too human


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If you suspected all along that the collapse of Wall Street in 2008 and the ensuing economic meltdown had its roots in cocaine-fueled orgies and lost nights of booze-soaked debauchery, and if you've always wondered what that looked like, then "Ghosts of Manhattan" is the book for you.

Or if you just want a good, easy read, "Ghosts of Manhattan" is that, too.


"GHOSTS OF MANHATTAN"
By Douglas Brunt
Touchstone/Simon & Schuster ($24).

The first novel from Douglas Brunt, former CEO of an Internet security firm in New York, "Ghosts" takes the reader inside life on Wall Street via the first-person narrative of one Nick Farmer. A bond trader working at the now-defunct Bear Stearns, we meet Nick in late autumn of 2005, when the seeds of the financial meltdown were being sown, watered and fertilized by naughty boys who earned ungodly sums of money. (Maybe there were naughty girls there on the trading floor, too, but the only naughty girls Mr. Brunt shows us are the prostitutes and masseuses who cater to these id-addled boys.)

Nick, our tour guide through the festering petri dish of Wall Street culture, scored a job at Bear after a college buddy who worked there got him an interview. Knowing how this story ends -- or at least how it ended for millions of Americans who lost their homes and/or their jobs -- readers will not be surprised that young Nick's job interview had little to do with his math skills: "I was told ahead of time that the main test I need to pass is whether I'm a guy they could sit next to on a long plane ride without wanting to put a bullet in their head at the end of the flight. I'm at Cornell, so they assume I'm smart enough. I play lacrosse, so they assume I'm a good guy."

Thirteen years later, at age 35, the lifestyle that comes with the job is catching up with Nick. It's tiring having to go out almost every night and nurture the varied relationships so crucial to a bond trader's success. Because the fact is, the care and feeding of those relationships involves copious amounts of cocaine and alcohol.

On the bright side, it's all on the corporate dime, so money's not an issue. On the downside, though, the late nights and hung over mornings take their toll on personal relationships.

Enter Nick's wife, Julia. And Julia's admirer, Oliver. And Rebecca, the bombshell business correspondent for CNBC who comes sniffing around after Nick thanks to Nick's sort-of friend Freddie, the only guy at Bear who actually knows math and can think beyond his own wallet and his own hedonistic delights.

In fact, while this is very much a story about greed and moral decay, Mr. Brunt does a good job of making it as much about relationships. To my surprise, I end up rooting for Nick; I want to see him succeed in saving his marriage. I want to see him emerge from the black morass he seems so stuck in. Not that he's the most sympathetic protagonist -- he's not -- but it isn't impossible to understand how it gets hard to walk away from all that money.

"The difference between what people think about a person like me and what a person like me is really like is bigger than in any other job," Nick says, trying to explain to a friend how messed up his life is. "People think I have a sharp mind for economics, and the reality is that I'm a sales guy who doesn't know much about economics and I don't really even read financial statements. People think we make a pretty good wage, and the reality is we have 28-year-old traders making so much they have running jokes about CEOs slaving away for one-fifth the salary we make. People think we're sharp-dressed bankers working long hours, and the reality is we're 8 to 5 and the rest of the time the suit is draped over the back of some ratty chair while we get an X-rated massage."

In the end, I'm left wondering how much Mr. Brunt's story actually resembles what life looked like (and possibly still does) for a lot of these guys. I want to believe our nation's economy doesn't actually depend on these obscenely wealthy Peter Pans who think only of themselves.

Sadly, though, I suspect that Douglas Brunt got it right.


A conversation with the author

Judy Wertheimer spoke with Douglas Brunt over Skype on Monday, Oct. 29, as he waited with his two young children at his home on Long Island for Hurricane Sandy to hit. His wife, Fox News Channel anchor Megyn Kelly, had spent the night in New York City to make sure she could get to work in the morning. Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity.

Douglas Brunt: We've got a 3-year old and an 18-month old. It's been a crazy morning already. One's napping and one's watching Mickey Mouse, so I'm in good shape for at least half an hour.

Judy Wertheimer: Okay, well, I won't keep you too long. First I want to say that I really enjoyed your novel.

DB: Thank you.

JW: It felt like a very inside look at what life was like for a lot of these guys on the trading floor before the crash. I was just wondering how you got your information.

DB: Primary and secondary. I have a number of friends from college and friends that I have made since college, who worked in sales and trading on Wall Street, and many of them sat down with me to help shape a credible backdrop for the story and shape some of the stories.

Some of the moments are inspired by stories I heard. It's fiction. None of the characters are based on anyone. None of the stories are based on actual stories. You hear things and you start, over time, to get a feel for it. There's no one conversation that did any of it, it's just that I've been in New York for a couple of decades and have had this front-row seat to it for a couple of decades, and you get a feel for how it really works.

And it's funny, I had never gone on Twitter or anything like that, but, given that social media is a big way to market books, Simon & Schuster set up a Twitter page for me and encouraged me to tweet. So I have been tweeting and receiving tweets, and many tweets have come back from people, saying that they were in sales and trading, traded on Wall Street for years and got out, and they said that it is so spot on.

It is exactly the lifestyle. And so I think it does effectively give this sort of "insider baseball" look at it.

JW: Have you gotten any push-back from people who are saying, "Who is this guy? ... He's making this stuff up." Have you heard anything like that?

DB: No. I haven't heard anybody saying I'm making it up. The most I've heard in that direction is, "Hey, we're not all terrible guys. You know, some of us are pretty good guys," and I think that's true.

JW: And most of the guys you were writing about, they weren't the heavy hitters who wielded all the power. So I'm wondering where they fell in the food chain and why you picked them to write about.

DB: That's one of the amazing things, that people who aren't that high up the food chain are still making three, four, five million dollars a year in annual bonus. ...Everyone who followed Wall Street -- not just business news, but everyday, regular news in 2008, given the crisis -- everyone knows that the CEO of Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley is going to make 50 or 75 million dollars a year. Those things are widely reported. But what people don't really know is that it's guys who are late 20s, early 30s, making millions, which is just shocking, especially for what they're doing, which is sales. They're just selling bonds, instead of selling something else.

JW: And they don't bring any particular expertise necessarily.

DB: Relationships, is what they bring. And you can see from the novel how the relationships are formed and cemented, but they're selling things, and that's part of the handcuffs that keep you in that industry, because there is no way that these guys can go sell something else and make a few million dollars a year. And so it is hard to walk away from.

JW: Do people? I mean, how common is it for people to really get disgusted and walk away?

DB: It's much easier to get disgusted when you've already banked 20 million bucks. One of the interesting tweets that I got -- and I still feel funny saying that word -- was from this guy saying that he was a trader on Wall Street, and he was going to a meeting for lunch, and he was just so fed up, he skipped the meeting. He went to a motorcycle shop, bought a motorcycle, and basically, I think he went home to pack a bag, but said he basically didn't stop until he got to California. And never looked back. This was all 25 years ago.

But he said, "What you've captured in the book brought me right back there. It's exactly right." And I wrote back, "I'm glad you found the courage to make that choice that was right for you in your own pursuit of happiness."

JW: What a great compliment, to hear people saying you got it exactly right.

DB: It is great to read these kinds of pieces of feedback. It was nice. It's just funny to think that anyone's out there reading it at all. For me, I'm still getting used to that.

JW: Yeah, that's very cool. As far as you know, has the culture changed at all since the crash?

DB: It swings up and down slightly with the level of compensation. And so it's interesting, you can look at this stuff on a New York website, a government website. They'll show the cash bonuses paid out by Wall Street firms. And in 2002, it's around $10 billion. At the peak, '05 or '06 -- at the end of '06, at the [pre-financial crisis] peak -- it was $30 billion, and last year it was $20 billion. So they're off the peak, but they're twice what it was in 2002.

And definitely, entertainment still happens. There are more regulations around certain kinds of trading. But they're still making plenty of money obviously, again, twice 2002. And entertainment, of course, still happens and it's still the way business primarily gets done, because what they're trading is a commodity. It's the same bonds in the secondary market anywhere. So you can get these bonds from anyone. But of course you get it from the person that you know, and who you were out entertaining with last night.

JW: And by entertaining, you mean the drug and alcohol culture is still as prevalent as it was?

DB: I think it's probably a little off just because people are making a little less money, and I think, well, it's twofold. One is they're making a little less, but they're still making great money. And the other is they were so vilified, and you could say wrongly vilified. I mean, I think if you look at the causes of the financial crisis in 2008, everyone acted in a predictable way, exactly as you would predict.

There's a line in the book, I don't know if you remember this line, but Nick says, "If you compensate a person based on volume, he's gonna give you volume." And that's exactly what these guys did. They performed their job descriptions in a way to maximize their bonus.

And so if you look at what the guys at Bear Stearns did, trading the derivative products, or the people at AIG who were underwriting the derivative products -- essentially selling the insurance that magnified the problem -- everyone did exactly as they were prescribed to do, which is one of the ironies of picking folks at this level.

I mean, the folks at a higher level were making more strategic decisions, you know, the CEOs, even they may not fully understand the issues with the derivative products and the credit default swaps. But the guys at this level were just doing their job. You can't fault the person for that. You know, they're saying, "Trade this much and I'll give you this big a bonus, and trade twice as much, I'll give you twice as big a bonus."

So of course, they're just doing what they're told. So from that perspective, it's tough to say they're bad guys. But Wall Street, generally, got this sort of blanket vilification, and so I think between that and making a little bit less money, I think the hubris is a little bit less than it was.

JW: Do you think it's fair to say, too, that adultery was pretty much accepted, commonplace? That was certainly part of your story.

DB: I think it happens in any industry. I wouldn't pick on Wall Street as being the sort of sole haven for adultery. But definitely, strip clubs are -- you combine that level of money with that age -- and it's a young man's game, it's a lot of guys in their 20s and early 30s. So combine money, that age group, and New York City, and it's a recipe for a lot of that stuff going on.

New York can get on top of you if you don't have much money, but if you have money, it's kind of a playground.

JW: I understand that you're married to Megyn Kelly, who is a news anchor on the Fox News Channel. Do you think that your wife being on Fox has affected the reception of your book at all, either positively or negatively?

DB: I don't know. It probably balances out in a wash. The reviews from places like Publishers Weekly or Kirkus are things that I don't think are influenced one way or the other, and they were very good. ... It is interesting, you know, as her star has risen, the level of positive and negative feedback comes back, I mean, some people, they don't watch her show, they just make an assumption on Fox, and say, "Oh, it must be horrible."

And depending on your views, you either love, or don't like Sean Hannity. Her show is more straight news in the daytime programming and so she doesn't get that level of love and hate that, with Hannity, it's extreme. People are just one way or the other.

JW: Right.

DB: She's walking around New York City and a lot of people are like, "Love you. Hate Fox, but I love you!" [laughter] She gets a lot of that, which is certainly better.

But anyway, there have been some early promotions for the book that have helped, like going on her show. But from there, that's only a small thing, and really, what you're hoping to do is have that help set something in motion ... If there is going to be any meaningful sales, it's going to be through word of mouth and people recommending it to their book club and then a thousand more book clubs do it, and then you get into real sales numbers. ...

I'd rather have the book stand on its own. I think it's a good book and, hopefully, word of mouth will continue to have sort of the viral effect to get the word out.

JW: Are there any books you would recommend for people who want to read more about Wall Street culture?

DB: There are two in particular that are nonfiction that I read that I thought were very good. One is Michael Lewis' "The Big Short." All his books are really entertaining, whether it's "Moneyball" about baseball, or "Liar's Poker," which is also about Wall Street. He does a great job of taking complex stuff and boiling it down in a way that you can really grasp it.

The other one I read is longer and a little bit more of a slog to read, but is good, would be Andrew Ross Sorkin's book, "Too Big To Fail." Those are two nonfiction.

Fiction? I haven't really seen much.

JW: I read that you're working on a second novel.

DB: Yes.

JW: Can you give us any clue what it's about?

DB: It's not connected, it's not a sequel, it doesn't pick up where Nick left off or anything like that, but it will probably -- well, I'll leave it at that for now.

bookreviews

Judy Wertheimer is a writer living in Squirrel Hill (wertheimer.jb@gmail.com).


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