Street Freak, by Jared Dillian

Gather ‘round and I’ll tell you a scary story about people who play games with air—a story about greed and tunnel vision and unchecked machismo, a story about screaming at the sales team, smashing telephones, and farting. In this story, there is lots and lots of farting.

Jared Dillian, a one-time trader at Lehman Brothers, has written a riveting memoir about his days gambling with other people’s money on Wall Street. I didn’t understand half of what was going on in the book, but Dillian is a natural-born writer, whose colorful mass rants over the Bloomberg earned him a readership long before he wound up in a mental hospital and serendipitously met the novelist Siri Hustvedt (What I Loved), who volunteered there as a creative-writing teacher. Her encouragement led to Street Freak, which alternates sentences like “We spent the afternoon bobbing around on our boards beyond the break as the sun tried and failed to burn through the gray clouds” with sentences like “I clicked the mouse on the Unix computer, sending basket IABUY0305A to the marketplace” and “There were at least twelve stalls, each of them completely and utterly necessary, and each of them filled to capacity by eight thirty in the morning, after each of the sales guys had read their morning research, which was enough to make any asshole dilate.”

Dillian is highly focused on his rectum and the rectums of others. His background is military, and he is a self-made man, an economically disadvantaged youth who joined the Coast Guard and put himself through business school while working two jobs and, against all the odds of money, looks, and charm, clawed his way to Wall Street, where he didn’t fit in at all. He didn’t dress right, he didn’t talk right, and he was a terrible salesman, primarily because he got blackout drunk whenever he took potential customers to dinner. What he didn’t know about himself was that he was bipolar. The stress of winning and losing millions of invisible dollars forced swings of mania and depression, mounting symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the delusion that he was being followed by the FBI for an illegal trade he couldn’t remember making.

Dillian learned plenty about his mental health during his time at Lehman Brothers. And though he understands that unchecked greed and unsustainable credit practices led to the current financial crisis and the demise of the venerated investment bank, what he never acknowledges is that the market he loves so much in its minutiae is just another delusion—though he refers to it often enough as a game, as money he makes, essentially, for free. He never mentions the people on whose backs these margin bets are made. He doesn’t seem to realize that the market is just a collective delusion perpetuated by people who, quite literally, buy into it. As a trader, his annual income rose from the low to high six figures. Because he grew up poor, he is careful with his money; he doesn’t throw it away on $40 lunches and wine refrigerators. By the time Lehman Brothers goes belly up, he’s worth more than three million dollars in cold cash, but he doesn’t consider himself rich because it is never enough. It will never be enough.

Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 356 pages

This review originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 10/28/2011