He could talk his way into situations, too. After Princeton, Lewis was studying for a master’s degree at the London School of Economics and playing on their Perrier-sponsored basketball team when a distant cousin invited him to a dinner for Queen Elizabeth. By the end of the meal, he’d managed to charm the woman next to him, the wife of a Salomon Brothers managing director, into asking her husband to find him a job. It was a lucky break: The material he got working as a junior bond salesman at Salomon begat Liar’s Poker, although you do have to wonder what could have been if he’d been seated next to the Queen Mum.
“Despite the delight he takes in lampooning Wall Street,” says Tom Bernard, who worked alongside him, “as a newly minted salesman he did very well.” He put it a bit differently in the book, as the “Human Piranha”: “That is fucking awesome,” he tells Lewis after a big sale. “You are one Big Swinging Dick, and don’t let anyone tell you different.”
But Lewis hated working on Wall Street, he says. Not just the values of the place but the whole “tooth-and-claw atmosphere.” He’d intended Liar’s Poker to be a cautionary tale and was dismayed when it became something of an advertisement. “Overt ambition,” he tells me, “people who are obsessed with success at every turn … I find that off-putting.”
But also, it would seem, alluring. He seems inexorably drawn to what he refers to as the “arena of ambition”: Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Washington, professional sports. Of course, Lewis himself doesn’t suffer from any ambition deficit—no story is too big for him, and he’s always finding a way to maximize the value on the investments of his time. “He is the most opportunistic writer I know, and I mean that in the best possible way,” says Kyle Pope, who edited Lewis at Portfolio.
When he talks about ideas, Lewis can sound like a hedge-fund manager discussing a great trade. “It’s kind of amazing that Moneyball was available to be written at all,” he says, sitting in his office in a bungalow off the back of his house in Berkeley. “Billy Beane’s doing this thing that is totally original, under the noses of the mainstream media,” he said. “That amazed me that opportunity existed.” Part of the reason, he came to realize, was the relationship between sports reporters and their subjects. “It is amazing how much contempt there is for the professional media that surrounds any given enterprise,” he says. “I find it all the time. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs think the tech journalists are all stupid. The sports people think that about the sports journalists. They don’t say that to the sports journalists, because they want the sports journalists to be nice to them. But the level of contempt is very high. You need to kind of cut through that,” he says. “You’ve got to be willing to not be a member of the tribe. Like, you can think what you think about journalists, but don’t put me in that category, because I’m not that.’ ”
The places in his new book, Boomerang, were also blessedly undercovered. “I kept thinking, Why hasn’t the really big piece been done?Why is this available to do? Why is this investment opportunity available to me?”
The reason, of course, is that he is Michael Lewis. Magazines these days aren’t willing to pay just anyone to go to Europe for 10,000-word semi-satirical finance pieces, especially at Lewis’s rate—$10 a word when he left Portfolio for Vanity Fair.
And now that Europe is on the verge of collapse, Lewis couldn’t be happier, like a distressed-market investor. “The timing for Boomerang is unbelievable,” he said. “It’s going to get worse and worse and worse. I’m going to be on Jon Stewart, and Greece is going to be leaving the euro. Sometimes you get lucky in the moment. Boomerang is really going to get lucky in the moment.”
Lucky for him, anyway. The essays in Boomerang haven’t endeared him to European leaders trying to convince the world of their solvency. “Iceland won’t let him go back,” says Sean Tuohy. (Lewis on Iceland: “Icelanders are among the most inbred human beings on Earth.”) “God knows, he goes to Greece he’s going to get shot.” (Lewis on Greece: “A nation of people looking for anyone to blame but themselves.”)
And not everyone whom Lewis writes about finds it a warm, respectful experience. In February, Lewis was sued by a New Jersey–based investor named Wing Chau, who opened The Big Short to find himself playing the greedy fool to Steve Eisman’s righteous genius. By the sound of the complaint, he enjoyed the book, despite being unhappy with his role in it:“Consistent with the engaging narrative of heroes and villains Lewis set out to create, The Big Short purports to recount the thinking and conduct of a few investors like Eisman who foresaw the crash. And it purports to recount the actions and statements of the ‘villain’ CDO managers, particularly Wing Chau, who supposedly brought about the calamity.”