The Predator’s Ball: The Inside Story of Drexel Burnham and the Rise of the Junk Bond Raiders
by Connie Bruck, published 1988
This review is going to be brief because, full disclosure, I’ve only read (as of this writing) 180 pages of this book. And honestly, that might be about all I’ll end up reading. Here’s why:
There are great Wall Street/business biography books (The First Tycoon by TJ Stiles, for example, which I will write a review of when I eventually re-read), good Wall Street/business biography books (much of what Michael Lewis has written qualifies, even though I find the author as a person to be a bit nauseating) and bad Wall Street/business biography books, a category of which Connie Bruck’s effort is a member.
Great books in this genre are exciting to read, they’re deeply researched and place major developments and character traits into a meaningful context and they leave the reader feeling like he’s gained some knowledge which is general and timeless in nature. The good books largely accomplish the same but a little less efficiently and with a little less objectivity, the author coming across as being taken by his subject matter.
The bad books offer none of the benefits (historical context, depth of mechanical understanding, deconstruction of character) and come chock full of pointless and irrelevant trivia– lots of dates, tons of deal size data and a mountain of dropped names. The writing is sycophantic and lap-dogish, the tone is that of a hyperkinetic cheerleader and the message is one of ignorant, drooling, envious amazement.
“The Predator’s Ball” is hard to read because it seems like it was hard for Bruck to write. She flings a lot of facts and figures at you but you never get the sense she understands the qualitative significance of any of it. The book is too self-conscious and self-aware– whereas in a Michael Lewis book you can easily lose yourself in the story and feel as though you’re a fly on the wall watching everything happen, Bruck’s book comes across as a series of poorly stitched together self-referential interviews where the illusion and pacing are constantly broken by the author willingly neglecting her editorial duty and allowing herself to be used as a mouthpiece by her interviewee.
And it gets worse.
Bruck spends page after page gushing about the… gushers… of money that were pouring forth on Wall Street during the junk bond-backed buyout boom of the early 80s. But in 180 pages she has yet to stop and ask herself (and then answer) where in the hell all this money is coming from? And the book is purposefully about Michael Milken and his comrades but she makes it seem like they were the only players in the entire world of finance doing any of this stuff when more likely they had competitors not only in the US but around the world. There’s no consideration of monetary policy and little discussion of the regulatory climate. It’s like this drama is unfolding in a vacuum.
It’s not only confusing but so arbitrary as to seem pointless.
By Connie Bruck’s telling, Wall Street drama is a lot like the drama of high school social politics. The book speaks of many parties, hangouts (meetings), liaisons and shenanigans and tries to convince the reader that he should care what all these “popular” kids are doing. It’s all supposed to be extremely interesting, who slept with who, who did a deal with who and for how much and how mad it made someone else. You keep turning the page under the assumption it’s all going to add up to something, that the story is going somewhere and the meaning of all of these interactions will be summarized and revealed.
It never does. That’s when you might feel compelled, as I was, to set the book down in frustration and walk away.
I bought the book because I wanted to understand the LBO world– who were the players, how did it work, why did it happen when it did and what were the major lessons? I highlighted a few things, but mostly I just want my money back.