Photographs: Skip Bolen/Getty Images (Lewis); Eric Charbonneau/Getty Images (Beane); John Shearer/Getty Images (Collins Tuohy); Donna Svennevik/ABC via Getty Images (Oher); Jeffrey Mayer/Wireimage/Getty Images (Sean And Leigh Anne Tuohy); Jack Ainsworth/AP Photo (Taylor); Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images (Gutfrund); Jamie Rector/Bloomberg via Getty Images (Ranieri); Patrick McMullan (Remaining)
"Michael does this over and over again,” says Don Epstein, the agent who handles Lewis’s speaking engagements, which are plentiful and remunerative. Epstein also handles Lewis’s remarkable spillover: When Lewis does a book, he often puts the people he writes about in touch with Epstein, because, inevitably, they are going to need an agent, too. Even supporting characters are in demand: Epstein books for Paul DePodesta, Moneyball’s number-crunching straight man; Susan “Miss Sue” Mitchell, who tutored Michael Oher in The Blind Side; and Meredith Whitney, the financial analyst whose early warnings about subprime debt were highlighted in Lewis’s financial-crisis narrative The Big Short. “It’s almost like he stamps his own brand on you by writing about you,” says Whitney.
Lewis is often referred to as a business writer, and this is sort of true, in that his narratives usually focus on some kind of market, be it for bonds or baseball players. But he’s a business writer only in the same way that Malcolm Gladwell is a business writer. What most interests him are people and how they behave. He tends to favor stories about mavericks—like the Tuohys, Beane, Whitney, and Steve Eisman, the eccentric short-seller star of The Big Short—smart people who identify gaps of logic and market inefficiencies, and take advantage of them.
He can write about these kinds of people with such skill in part because he is one of them. At a time of peril for his industry, Lewis has managed to build what amounts to a personal empire of long-form journalism, with a Warren Buffett-like collection of brands and eye for the next big thing. “He’s got good instincts for the individual story and for the broader picture of where that story belongs,” says Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. “The big story of the day is the world financial crisis, and he’s the most kick-ass business writer out there.”
His aptitude for translating and enlivening financial concepts has made him an indispensable observer of the crisis: In May 2010, Politico reported that The Big Short had been name-checked on the official Senate record at least fifteen times since its publication just two months before, and that Hill staffers had been calling Lewis at home for advice. “I was watching television the other day, and Barney Frank was quoting him like he was a Nobel laureate,” Whitney tells me. This spring, Lewis was invited to Washington to speak to the Democratic Caucus. Afterward, senators came up to him, fanlike, asking for autographs. “I have to believe that’s how a lot of those senators learned about the crisis,” says Whitney.
This week, he’ll publish a follow-up, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, a collection of hilarious reported essays he wrote for Vanity Fair that finger Icelandic elves, greedy Greek monks, and a German obsession with shit as a few of the culprits for the European economic collapse. With the continent in an economic meltdown nobody seems to really understand, these witty ethnographic studies have been received like Rosetta stones. It will be no surprise if senators are soon consulting them, too.
Lewis will soon be moving on to other things. The success of Moneyball and The Blind Side means Hollywood is smiling on him: HBO is developing his pilot for a fictionalized series about immigrant baseball players, which was inspired by an article he wrote for Vanity Fair, ABC has optioned his fatherhood book Home Game, and Warner Bros., which has been holding onto the rights for Liar’s Poker for years, has finally hired a director and commissioned Lewis to write the script. He’s also planning on writing a movie based on his book about Billy Fitzgerald, his high-school baseball coach. And there’s a stack of new ideas, including a sequel to Moneyball, in manila folders in his office, waiting to become magazine articles and books and movies and, eventually, other people’s Las Vegas speaking engagements.
“It’s really one of the most remarkable long-form journalism careers,” says Gerald Marzorati, his former editor at The New York Times Magazine. “He’s had at least as big a career as Gay Talese or Joan Didion or Tom Wolfe. ”
If not bigger: What other journalist can claim to have changed the way the game of baseball is played, influenced resolutions like the Dodd-Frank Act, and possibly inspired Sandra Bullock to adopt a black baby?
Then again, not everybody is so impressed. “Everybody thinks he’s like this icon, like he’s just the most brilliant, intelligent person ever created,” says Leigh Anne Tuohy. “We don’t see it. We just think he’s goofy and odd.”
My talking to Michael Lewis’s subjects was actually Michael Lewis’s idea. You can’t write about a master of character studies without wondering how he might do it himself. “I wouldn’t do it,” he said, before being quickly reminded by my expression that most journalists don’t have the luxury of turning down assignments from their employers. “If you forced me to do it,” he continued, “I’d go see the people I wrote about. I’d go see the main characters, the people whose lives I kind of entered. I would go through them. I might not even talk to me,” he said, warming to the idea, which he compares to lost-wax casting: “You don’t write about the person; you write about the person’s effect.”