Boom Lit

Three years after the tech crash, Seattle authors are starting to mine their memories of the dot-com era.

THE 1987 WALL STREET CRASH triggered a literary tsunami. Books like The Bonfire of the Vanities and Liars Poker provided an eye-popping glimpse behind the rotten satin curtain of the greed-is-good decade, plus a schadenfreude particularly delicious to those of us for whom 80s greed did no good whatsoever. Tom Wolfe, Michael Lewis, and company skewered the hubristic losers and made a killing for themselves. So its no surprisein fact, its overduethat authors here in the shady land of cyberscam should finally capture that fleeting zeitgeist of skyrocket options, 99 Kompressors, and Medina mansions for all. Last year, ex-Amazonian Mike Daisey was first out the gate with 21 Dog Years, a cheerfully unreliable memoir in which the Jayson Blairlike kid boasts of defrauding his generous employerwhich, full disclosure, was also once my employer. He cashed in with a stage show that was such a hit he parlayed it into a book contract. Hes a better writer than Blair, but minor, a clown. Well, here come the heavy hitters, four current or upcoming boom-inspired books by real writers with a prayer of putting our experience on the literary map. This summer, Michael Byers gave us Long for This World (Houghton Mifflin, $24), a novel wherein Seattleites make insta-fortunes from biotech, Microsoft, and Amazon. Next week, Fred Moody, a longtime Seattle Weekly staffer who left the paper in 1999, publishes his boom-and-bust memoir, Seattle and the Demons of Ambition: A Love Story (St. Martins Press, $24.95). October brings Jonathan Rabans Waxwings (Pantheon, $24), a boom novel already long-listed for the Booker Prize. And next year comes Amazonia, the just-completed memoir by James Marcus, one of Amazons earliest staffersand formerly my officematewho for years was responsible for the home page. As a 1980s Seattle Weekly writer (now back for my second tour), I know many people both in and behind these four books. When Moody describes SW founder David Brewster as Warner Brothers Tasmanian Devil in a narcolepsy ward, I may harrumph but have to smile. Moody ruefully tells how he dodged seven-figure Microsoft gigs in the 80s, then tipped off Katherine Koberg, Brewsters longtime lieutenant editor, to a posh Amazon job instead of applying himself in 96. Koberg hired me as her lieutenant. She and I are characters in Amazonia, as is Jeff Bezos, manning the dunk tank at the company picnic. The four horsemen of the tech apocalypse get plenty right: the Nasdaq braggadocio; the Belltown restaurants in Rabans Waxwings that opened and closed so quickly that by the time you got a reservation, the place had changed from French to Afghan; the stunning collision of three culturesnot just C.P. Snows mutually clueless humanists and science types, but juggernaut MBAs, too. In Waxwings, techies talk literally in code, their speech sprinkled with impenetrable acronyms. Impenetrability was invulnerability. While researching his 1995 Microsoft book, I Sing the Body Electronic, Moody watched an executive torment a baffled Ph.D job applicant by ordering him to find the flaw in what was actually an infinite loop of computer code, while, by chance, Kurt Cobain threateningly reiterated Dont know what it MEANS on the radio. Not knowing code meant that the throngs of English majors in the boom milieu werent invulnerable at all. In Waxwings, a journalist turned dot-commerwho reminds me of Rabans ex-wife, an SW alum who shared Kobergs Amazon officefinds that editorial types had no arcane science of their own with which to defend themselves, and so the programmers and the number crunchers, incapable of making sense to each other, usually settled their differences by laying into the dopes on the ninth floor . . . because everyone could read. A chill wind of melancholy blows through these books, and a frosty moralism about tech wealth defiling the pristine Northwest lifestyle. When the Kingdome falls in Byers Long for This World, its a symbol of a larger fall. During the boom, muses its preIPO protagonist, Seattle was a softer, richer, larger, less backward sort of place now, a place where immense fortunes were being made . . . it was a strange, slightly dirty, uncomfortable feeling, as though he were negotiating to sell a memory, or a limb. Spotting a nouveau riche neighbors gaudy car, a character asks herself, If the SUV gave Jackie pleasure, was it really a bad thing? Yes. But mild guy Byers is afflicted with Seattles original sin of niceness: He never goes ballistic, just belletristic. Hes too tolerant and sensitive to really throw the book at boom miscreants. Raban, the haughty possessor of the citys most impeccable prose style, is less shy about carving up the parvenus. He has the wife of one ex-Microsoft-VP-turned-digital-smell-entrepreneur spend the couples exponential wealth flying a very special gardener in from Bucharest to plant their lakeside backyard. (Raban actually met a Seattle dame who did this.) Gleefully razzing a manse like a partially-solved woodblock puzzle and a vast Chihuly representing either a tropical marine-life form or the biggest vulva in the world, Rabans writer protagonist, Tom Janeway, an analog person in a digital world, likens the smell magnates to arrivistes out of Dickens: Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. Raban only has the veneer of Swift, thoughinside hes got a heart as big as Dickens. He paints unbelievably skillful verbal portraits of Seattle scenes and types, from MFAs to MBAs to (his finest creation) an upwardly mobile Chinese stowaway who rises from Harbor Island to I-5s tent camp to Queen Anne Hill. But when Rabans satire occasionally wounds, its only a flesh wound. Like Byers, his pen isnt pointed enough. It takes Moody to really let the haves have it, partly because of all he disdained to have for himselfuntil it was too late. Seattle and the Demons of Ambition is a cri de coeur. Its prone to wild overstatement, jolting jeremiads, desultory leaps from character to character, wild lunges from century to century. He gives a quickie history of Seattle, and reprises 20 years worth of his own local journalism (mostly from SW), ranging from Hmongs to dot-coms. Yet the book holds together, more or less, thanks to Demons thesis that ambition is alien to the local soul. Moody identifies with founding father Doc Maynard, whose boozing and selfless boosterism cost him every penny of his downtown Seattle property, worth $100 million to later owners. Our towns life has been one continuous bucking-bronco sine wave of boom and bust, ridden by Klondike profiteers, Boeing war buckaroos, and debt-defying Webwalkers alike. The costumes change, but the wild ride goes on and on. Moodys priceless epigraph features a Dawson gold prospector named Swiftwater Bill Gates who once showered nuggets on the Seattleites who gathered in the streets below. Moodys historical awareness is as keen as his personal confessions are hysterical. Moody came up when Seattle had slob appeal, not snob appeal, Emmett Watson championed Lesser Seattle, and Ivar Haglund sang our anthem: No longer the slave of ambition, I laugh at the world and its shams. Surrounded by Demons forest of phalluses instead (boom-fueled skyscrapers), Moody yearns for acres of prelapsarian clams. Interestingly, Moodys considerable face time with Bill Gates (for his previous I Sing the Body Electronic and a New York Times story) left him believing that Gates ambition is of Seattles classic ascetic anti-ambition style. Hes harder on Gates would-be journalistic character assassin Mike Romano, the most nakedly ambitious employee in the history of the Weekly. And when Koberg came back from Amazon a changed woman, embracing tech-ambition, happily babbling about having four investment advisers, and intoning the all-too-true mantra, The Web isnt going to be about content, its going to be about transactions, Moody felt like the last terrified, uninvaded human in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. When at last Moody was snatched off into cyberworld by two astoundingly Beavis and Butt-headlike virtual reality entrepreneurs, he really got terrified. Squish and Joey, as they were called, launched a $3 billion company. Squish made $200 million overnight, bought a castle on Queen Anne, and successfully wooed a female SW editor who, as Moody tells it, had spurned him preIPO, whereupon the couple informed Joey that they couldnt put much more money in the business because they needed $60 million to live on. I dont know how fair or balanced this all is, but its horribly, hilariously entertaining. Joey looked like Bill Murray in Caddyshack and Squish looked like the gopher, Moody writes. Squish shouts, A millionaire by 30, a billionaire by 40! Moody inwardly shouts, Get thee behind me, Squish and Joey! Moody, of course, watched his own phantom wealth vanish like mist through a sieve when the crash came. He found solace in family, a less glamorous, more public-spirited job, and old Seattle values. The tech bust to him represents our cleansing opportunity. Though I love to read about it, I have reservations about the whole boom-bashing enterprise, and our supposedly clean state now that nobody in the Northwest will get filthy rich ever again. For one thing, ambition was always here. Ivar had it, and more money than he could spend. He may have sold the Old Seattle vision of calm, unstriving clams, but he was a striver himself, a canny carny barker. He once ordered me to write a big story about the 9- and 11-foot whale phalluses he planned to install in his restaurants. Im gonna cut holes in the ceiling to fit them in. Thats no bullshit! he kept saying, driven and aggrieved. By me, a whale phallus is just as vainglorious as a skyscraper, in any era. I also think people are far too quick to brand boom culture satanic and label it a failure. James Marcus, too, is likely to be lighter on the scorn and censure than Moody, Byers, and Raban in next years Amazonia. In an anecdote that will surely find its way into the final manuscript (which I have not yet read), he relates how, when Amazon bought its equity stake in Pets.com, Jeff Bezos noted how much easier life would be for those customers seeking, say, a ferret hammock. Mike Daisey made big fun of this. But, Marcus reminds us that, notwithstanding the $2.2 million blown for those sock puppet commercials and Pets.coms eventual bankruptcy, the domestic market for pet supplies is bigger than the one for books, and ferrets are the third-most-popular pet in America, right behind cats and dogs. Just because Bezos made a bad business bet doesnt mean its failure was foreordained. Maybe the tubular hammocks didnt work out, but Amazon has done nicely selling the childrens ferret fantasy novels by local author Richard Bach. The stock is up ninefold since 9/11, and the companys profitablenot busted at all. Marcus tells me that he set out to do what these other three boom authors did: debunk the dream and join the procession of flagellants. I figured the end product would be essentially satirical a punishment for hubris, including my own. Yet the finished book is much more even-tempered, and more nostalgic, than I ever expected. What?!? Nostalgic?!? Arent we supposed to be bitter, white-lipped, and trembling with rage that we were all so hoodwinked by the boom? I saw my options plummet, too, and felt my wax wings melt, but my ire has turned to irony. After selling out at fire-sale prices, then seeing Amazon soar again, I realize you cant even trust despair on Wall Street, and you cant regard fates sine wave as anything but grist for (often comic) drama. Whats lost is gone for good; investors loss is literatures gain. (Nationally, see books like John Cassidys Dot.con and Michael Wolffs Burn Rate, or documentaries like eDreams and Startup.com.) But spare me the moralizing. Business has no morality, only character and incident, flash and shadow. Reading the books described here was a better investment than practically any tech stock, though I eagerly await the genres category killer. Byers fails to convey the violence of boom culture, the accelerated grimace imposed by the roller coaster of dreams. Raban writes about the boom at a remove, as if he read about it in a bookin fact, books are his protagonists snug prison, and the prism through which he sees Seattle nature and culture. Moody dazzlingly projects his internal drama on local history, but his idiosyncrasy makes me feel like Im entering somebody elses world, not the one we all share. (I never thought the WTO riots were a comeuppance for ambition, just a bunch of punk anarchists looking for free shoes from Niketown.) Given Marcus catbird seat at Amazon and his aversion to moral pronouncements, his book may be the one I like bestprovided I like how my character comes off. But despite my reservations, Im exhilarated by these initial titles from the boom bookshelf. Why? Because the dot-com booms promise has finally been fulfilled. At lastits all about content. tappelo@seattleweekly.com Fred Moody will read at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Mon., Sept. 8.

 
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