Even some of his boosters agree that Lewis sometimes stretches the facts. “Michael’s a great storyteller,” says his mother. “He’ll take the facts and he will—he never lies, but he tends to exaggerate a little.”
Early on, when Sandra Bullock was starting to hang around Leigh Anne, and singer Tim McGraw started inviting Sean out to ball games, Michael Lewis warned the Tuohys about letting themselves get carried away. “You’ll have the rise,” he told them, but after that inevitably comes the fall. As he knows, a winning streak can only go on so long before the backlash begins.
This summer, it seemed like it might be time for a backlash against Michael Lewis. The advance press for Moneyball reopened debate over the wisdom of sabermetrics. When he postulated, in his essay about Germany’s role in the financial crisis in the September Vanity Fair, that the country’s behavior was driven by national guilt over the Holocaust and an even more deeply rooted Scheisse fetish, you could practically hear the click of the claws snapping out across the Internet. “Lazy,” said Mother Jones. The Times Magazine called it “a lot of hot air.” “Is Michael Lewis’s writing rolling downhill?” asked The Economist headline. “I thought that was the worst piece of his career, personally,” says Taylor. Others called the story little more than an ethnic joke.
Lewis does his best to ignore what he calls “the noise.” “I’m sensitive enough to criticism that if I pay attention to it, it may make me a worse writer,” he says, maneuvering his car through the Berkeley Hills. “When I sit down to write, I like to think everybody’s going to love me,” he adds. “Or at least I don’t think anybody’s going to hate me. It’s pronoia, right, is that the word? Everybody’s out to love me, not everybody’s out to hate me? I think basically that way as I move through the world.”
But occasionally anger descends like red haze, quickly and certainly. “I am quite capable of getting in a fistfight, if the moment is right,” he says. “When I get pissed, I get really pissed. I go to that level of anger.” The paperback edition of Moneyball contains a fifteen-page retort to his critics, whom he refers to as the “Women’s Auxiliary.” But lately, he’s managed to keep his fights inside his head. “I’ll be like, ‘I just wrote a 12,000-word piece about Germany in Vanity Fair. And people are reading it.” He laughs. “You do that. Do that. I’m waiting for it.” He shakes his head. “People whose job it is to generate an instant view … You do that enough, you forget what that person who is creating things did. All you are doing is responding to the things in front of you.” It still can take him about six hours to calm down. “Engaging with it is usually a lot more trouble than it’s worth.”
Except, that is, on the occasions when it could be worth something. On the drive back to my hotel in Berkeley, he remembers that he’d digressed earlier when I’d asked him about the Wing Chau lawsuit, and he thoughtfully brings the conversation back around to it. He’d tried like hell to get Chau’s side of the story when he was reporting The Big Short, but Chau wouldn’t take his calls. The lawyers for his publisher thought that it was just a nuisance suit, he said, but Lewis had been thinking about it and he realized it was actually an opportunity. Nobody has really explored the role of CDO managers who hand-selected crappy securities for places like Merrill Lynch. But now Chau would probably be required to file paperwork explaining what it was he actually did. “There might be a very good piece inside that, actually,” he says, pulling up to the curb. “That someone can do that and generate self-righteousness is interesting. Psychologically interesting. It may not be a complete waste of time. It may just be material.”