The Trick review – William Leith on how to make a packet – The Guardian

Posted: April 20, 2020 at 10:49 am


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Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, one of the subjects of William Leiths new book. Photograph: Paramount

William Leiths primary subject has always been appetite, and its close cousins compulsion and obsession. He first explored these themes in his newspaper columns, stagily self-absorbed fragments of a hungover life, and subsequently in two addictive books. The first, The Hungry Years, set his own capacity for excess in food and drink and drugs against a culture high on consumption; the second, Bits of Me Are Falling Apart, was a sometimes poignant, always curious, mediation on mortality, the consequences of that bingers lifestyle. Both books were revelatory and funny, and dramatised their own premise way, way too much.

The Trick takes all of Leiths writing habits his mazy streams of consciousness (few writers are quite so enamoured of, or good at, watching themselves think) and his love of axiom and, if anything, ups the ante. His subject here, is one that has always nagged away underneath his tales of excess if he wants so much, why has he often been so profligate in his attempts to get it? Why has he been unable, that is, to accumulate wealth rather than debt?

Leith has, over three decades as a magazine journalist, done more than his fair share of profiles of the rich and the super-rich. It is not, therefore, as though he has not seen them in action, questioned their motivations, studied their life choices why have none of those traits of success rubbed off? If he is so good at understanding what makes his subjects tick, why can he not apply that wisdom to his own bank balance?

This quest in search of the trick of outrageous fortune begins with one of those commissions. He has been asked to interview Jordan Belfort, the Wolf of Wall Street, who made a dizzying fortune and then lost it, after the greed that made him a millionaire made him a criminal. Leith conjures in perfect comic detail the strange pauper-and-prince life of the journalist sent on such an assignment, the weird afternoons of access to lives that sell magazines; access that, in him, only sharpens a sense of not having the secret key to that world to the country mansion, the minimalist architectural porn while simultaneously despising it. A snapshot of my mind, as I walk through the automatic door of the Chelsea Harbour hotel [to meet Belfort]. I am thinking about the rich. All my ideas and experiences are packaged into a powerful emotion a powerfully negative emotion. The rich, it tells me, are sad and delusional and so is the part of me that yearns to be rich.

Belfort lets him in on the secret of his success, just as those other multimillionaires he has profiled before Alan Sugar, Felix Dennis, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, a Russian oligarch named, appropriately, Max have let him in on theirs. And over the course of this book, Leith turns those secrets, nearly all of them platitudes over and over in his head, like a Samuel Beckett monologuist trying and failing to write a self-help manual.

He listens to Belforts wisdom on a loop: The only thing that stops you from getting what you want in life is the bullshit story you tell yourself about why you cant have it. Leith comes to realise his whole life is that story, but how to end it? He re-examines some of the more disastrous financial decisions of his life, the times he has had money and watched it slip through his fingers (Its like I actively want to be poor); he searches out game-theory billionaires like Nassim Nicholas Taleb and economic philosophers such as Matt Ridley who presided over the run on Northern Rock and responded by writing a book called The Rational Optimist.

And the more we watch him listen, the closer he gets to the trick itself. This being Leith, he boils it down a few times to the kind of wisdom that always sounds too simple to be true. Youll find the right path by taking lots of wrong paths. Be the brain surgeon and the mad axeman. Even as he writes them, he knows he will never learn them he thinks too much but it is, nevertheless hugely enjoyable watching him try.

The Trick by William Leith is published by Bloomsbury (20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over 15

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The Trick review - William Leith on how to make a packet - The Guardian

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April 20th, 2020 at 10:49 am

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