How Many Zeros Does It Take?

Randall Lane’s The Zeroes is a messy, rambling, engaging, provocative and challenging first-person account of Lane’s experiences as a magazine publisher catering to Wall Street in the “boom boom” years. Subtitled “My Misadventures in the Decade Wall Street Went Insane” might well be rephrased as the decade “Wall Street and I Went Insane.”

Lane is a twenty-first century flaneur with an entrepreneurial streak: he starts magazines. Trader Monthly, Dealmaker, Private Air, and P.O.V. are some of his titles. Today he is an editor at The Daily Beast. As a writer, his work has been widely published, from a start at Forbes to pieces in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Slate, among many others. He writes very well.

The focus of his book is the years from 9/11 through the crash of 2008, a period Lane aptly calls the “zeroes.” Traders added zeroes to their incomes and at the end of the party, there was zero job growth, zero progress. The book is not a history, though, it is first-person account of Lane’s work as co-founder and CEO of Doubledown Media. The Wall Street Journal’s review calls it more book report than review, and there’s some truth to the criticism. Lane’s publications, his friends, his work and world was Wall Street, the men who made astronomical sums of money, and all those around who were trying to feed off the wealth. In this stretch Lane started publications, threw parties, cooked up deals, hustled incessantly, and represented the best and the worst of the now old “new” media. It is debatable, though, whether Lane would recognize his work as “hustling.” In the frenzy but trying to keep at least a toe outside of it, he dishes punchy phrases and observations that bring home the endless excesses of the people and the period.

Why strip clubs? Private jets? And why so much money in the hands of so few? Good questions and Lane’s account helps to give some sense of what it was like and how it operated. The book has a gossipy, magazine-like feel to it, and Lane’s effortless prose speeds the reader along. The characters are larger-than-life, and not only because of their ambitions. Lane has an effective way of summing up a individual’s personality with a few, well-chosen words. And if he is to be believed, Lenny Dykstra should be in a prison or hospital.

But Lane does not go deeper and the book’s pieces do not add up to a more thoughtful or satisfying whole. Lane did not have his face against the glass; he was the glass, illuminating us and those inside. And with his smarts, his perspective and his assumed role as journalist, one could have reasonably expected more. He lets us know that he can tell right from wrong, but those categories were not often operative in this world.

Perhaps equally challenging, Lane’s motivation in the period is a mystery. Without a vision that gives us more of a sense of the man, he is a dynamic enigma at the center of the book. He does not seem particularly motivated by big picture issues. Provocatively, his oft-stated goal is not wealth. He likes to eat well, but a position as a restaurant critic offers the perquisite. He marries and becomes a father in the book, yet these events seem more like ways that he marks the passage of time from one deal to the next. There is a desire and curiosity to understand himself and his journalism, but there is little in the account that lets us see him as a working journalist. He does not write about writing and there is surprisingly little about the nuts and bolts of starting a magazine, developing a concept and content, and making that content good. While Lane writes of signing a lease for office space, he does not tell us how he hires and organizes his talent.

On the other hand, Lane does provide a great deal of information about borrowing money. And while not an inherently interesting subject, whether one is borrowing money to start a magazine or to build a house, Lane lets us sit at the table with some outlandish figures. As for why Wall Street, why Doubledown – it appears to be a way to keep Lane close to a buzz. And he seems more than willing to do whatever to stay close to that larger phenomenon.

My main complaint is that there is much in Lane’s book that allows for a broader, informed perspective, but that the book does not go there. He lost a ton of money in the decade, as did many others. Unlike many others,however, Lane’s book does not demonstrate a larger lesson learned. He may have gained better business skills – and I most certainly would not want to negotiate against him – but there is no arc of development, no deep realization, no “aha” moment that helps us identify with him and let us put the decade into perspective. I would have thought that a journalist with his experiences, emerging at the other end, would provide more insight, more wisdom. Books don’t need lessons, but for us to understand Lane and the decade, some kind of lesson is essential for the book to be effective as a book.

The most telling part of this book came at the end, when Lane mentioned that the proceeds from the volume would help to pay his mother back for the money she loaned him, money that he lost in his misadventures. That is powerful.

A sense of wanting is the taste that The Zeroes left in my mouth. A book penned by a smart man with a unique perspective on an incredibly important period should add up to much more than a zero.

David Potash

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