Michael Lewis puts faces on business stories

Author Michael Lewis

Growing up in New Orleans, writer Michael Lewis learned three lessons that stuck with him for life:

Success and happiness are very different things.

Never become a lawyer.

You don't need to come from a bookish environment to know how to spin a helluva story.

Maybe the storytelling part, Lewis speculates, stems from another thing New Orleans taught him. With its Creole-Cajun culture and hedonistic ethos, the Crescent City schooled him to view his native country like a skeptical foreigner trying to make sense of outlandish things that appear normal to the rest of America.

"If you grew up in New York you're unaware how strange Wall Street is," says the 51-year-old author of "Moneyball," "The Blind Side" and "The Big Short," plowing through a bowl of corn flakes on a recent morning at the Chateau Marmont. "It's like the fish is unaware of the water it swims in. But for me it was just bizarre. It's funny."

Lewis today might be the most insider-ish outsider writer alive. With an academic's grasp of brain-teasing concepts and the skewering wit of a morning drive-time host, he has crafted a distinct personal brand by writing about business matters with both expertise and with a rare accessibility.

For previous generations of journalists, the big narratives were about war, revolution and politics. Today the business of much of the world is business, which helps explain why Lewis' latest work, "Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World," (W.W. Norton, $25.95) ranked No. 2 on last week's New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list and holds that position on this Sunday's Los Angeles Times list. "Moneyball," first published in 2003 and recently released as a hit film starring Brad Pitt as iconoclastic Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane, was No. 3 among the paperback nonfiction titles on the NYT list, and "The Big Short" was ranked 13th on the same list.

Able to wring juice from the driest of subjects, Lewis waxes about business with the verve that David Halberstam and Oriana Fallaci brought to eyewitness accounts decades ago of Vietnam battlefields and Mexico City massacres. He partly credits his lively prose style to his London apprenticeship as a writer and associate editor with the razor-tongued British magazine the Spectator after wrapping up his studies at the London School of Economics.

"Going from American journalism to British journalism is like going from eating bratwurst to eating Mexican food," he says. "You go from feeling kind of constipated to feeling like you got the runs."

In contrast to brilliant but sleep-inducing economics writers of the past, Lewis generally eschews theory in favor of colorfully rendered characters, cinematic scene-setting and cut-to-the-chase analysis that almost any lay reader can fathom. "Boomerang" follows that blueprint, amplifying on the scathing insights yielded by his previous bestseller, "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine," a 2010 critique of the subprime mortgage fiasco.

In 213 snappily written, rage-inducing pages, "Boomerang" chronicles how hubristic money men, bumbling bureaucrats, feckless politicians and clueless consumers in locales as varied as Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Germany and, yes, California, nearly bankrupted the planet — and still may succeed in doing so. Much as he explicated major-league batters' on-base percentages in "Moneyball" and the game-changing role of pro football left tackles in "The Blind Side," Lewis in "Boomerang" lays bare the nuances of hedge fund shell games and shady derivatives swapping.

If the book, essentially a compilation of pieces written for Vanity Fair magazine, reads like a prophecy-in-progress, Lewis fears we haven't hit bottom in the global financial meltdown. "I just think it's going to take more pain," he says.

Congenitally chatty and assertively charming, Lewis possesses a divining rod for finding the sweet spot between popular interest and inside baseball — literally, in the case of "Moneyball." Subtitled "The Art of Winning an Unfair Game," the book is reaping a readership windfall from this fall's release of Bennett Miller's feature film, which dramatizes how Beane rattled conventional wisdom by stocking his team with low-paid, undervalued players who had the ability to get on base rather than with millionaire superstars.

"The Blind Side" expresses a similar theme of how true value often is misjudged and overlooked. The improbable true story of how a young, African American athlete born to a crack-addicted mother was adopted by a rich, evangelical Christian family, it was turned into a popular film featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Sandra Bullock.

As an investigative raconteur, Lewis proceeds from the axiom that, whether in a Wall Street boardroom or on a baseball diamond, you must focus on individuals and their behavior to understand societies. Every failed bank in Reykjavik, Iceland, every collapsed mortgage in suburban Dublin, Ireland, every Molotov cocktail hurled in Athens' Syntagma Square, was precipitated by singular human actions, he observes.

"The credit crisis, it's not just evil bankers, although there are plenty of those, it's not just the banking system losing its mind," Lewis says. Millions of Americans who made reckless decisions also are to blame, Lewis points out.

Lewis credits his tale-telling instincts to the daily gab-fests he absorbed as a Louisiana youth. "I didn't know anybody who knew anybody who'd written a book, with the one exception of Walker Percy, who was this freak who lived across the lake," he says. "But everybody tells stories in New Orleans. A New Orleanian ran Goldman Sachs in the golden age of Goldman Sachs, [Gustave] "Gus" Levy. And I think it's because he really emerged from New Orleans with an advanced degree in spinning.... . And the financial world is all about that."

In one way, Lewis acknowledges, his hometown — poor, sinking, bleeding population — epitomizes failure. In another, it stands undaunted as a symbol of "misvalued" things — people whose gifts go unrecognized, good ideas that get drowned out by bad ones, the rare gem that almost winds up on the garbage heap.

"Never become a lawyer — you've got to listen to other people's problems," Lewis' lawyer father often said, and the son took half of that advice. He now lives with his wife, former MTV reporter Tabitha Soren, and their three children in Berkeley, where, Lewis jokes, his leftier-than-thou friends regard him practically as Rush Limbaugh.

Even so, it's the first community he's lived in that reminds him of New Orleans' small-town affability, a place where life can be slowed and savored while the human success stories, in their polished shoes and pinstripes, rush by.

"What was important inside New Orleans was who your mama was, what carnival organization you belonged to, where you went to school," he reflects. "It wasn't that there was an attitude that was hostile to success, it was that success was family, it was 'did you give pleasure to people?' It was just kind of being. It wasn't achieving."

reed.johnson@latimes.com