Black Fridays
Michael Sears
Jason Stafford has his plate full. He just got out of jail (Wall Street trader, white-collar, half-a-billion dollars in "irregularities.") His five-year-old son --- autistic --- has just been kidnapped by his ex-wife, taken back to Louisiana. Meanwhile, he's been hired on to look at some financial improprieties at another Wall Street firm. They figure one whose been arrested and convicted will immediately be able to spot another firm's problems in what they used to call "the back rooms."

Those of us who are moderately interested in the ever-repeated scams of Wall Street will love this one. This is how money gets made out of nothing:

    Traders whip around millions of dollars a day --- sometimes billions --- trying to make a minuscule profit on 60 percent of their trades. It is never a "shock" to find that someone cut some corners. Traders front-run customers --- buying for their own book and running up the price before filling a customer order --- though it's illegal. They fade their bids --- backing away, dropping their price when the customer wants to sell --- when they know the market hasn't moved. They often mismark their book --- falsely pricing the securities they own --- to smooth out the bad days. And a few brazenly trade on insider information. Sometimes it's surprising when they get caught, but never "shocking."

This casual larceny pervades Black Friday, and it wouldn't be worrisome if Sears were some hack part-time financial journalist ... but he spent years on Wall Street and ended up as Managing Director in the bond trading and underwriting divisions of Paine Webber and Jeffries & Co. His is the insider's view, and it is unflinching.

More surprising is his interest in autism. The author is unsparing in his portrait of a youngster --- "the Kid" --- who fifty years ago would have been institutionalized.

There are certain key elements in the day-to-day of the autistic. Routine is mandatory. (The novel is named Black Friday because, on that day, the Kid has to wear black.) Touching is forbidden. They will go into spasms of rage if certain arbitrary lines are crossed. Kicking biting screaming howling. The rest of the time: little eye contact, no (apparent) affection for those who care for them. Reason doesn't work.

Constant humming. This is Sears' take on the humming: "The hum was single note, waning and waxing, but never changing pitch, almost meditative, but with an edge. Like trying to chant "Om" when you're really pissed off about something. A sound like a wasps' nest in the wall."

§   §   §

The novel is everything it should be. It's another of those books that bothers you and bothers you until you finish it. The plot works, there are the requisite number of bodies (three or four at least), and Jason gets bashed around enough --- and like most in this genre, recovers almost instantly --- to make you ache all over.

Sears' knowledge of the arcana of Wall Street is more than convincing. Like this on the buying and selling of mortgages (remember that?) "There were salesmen who serviced only a single client and yet produced millions in commissions each year. Traders specialized in ARMs, dwarfs, IOs, POs, balloons, private label and Z-bonds. All of which were meaningless to me and most of the employees outside the gated community of mortgage securitization."

This stuff about stiffing people on Wall Street --- literally --- makes Black Fridays entertaining, but the take on autism is a surprise, a pleasant surprise. Not that autism is pleasant (it can be dreadful at first for the unsuspecting parent) but it is something to have an antihero of a crime novel show the profound affect (and affection) that a child --- a child that most of the world would call weird or nuts --- can generate.

And then there are the asides. This is Jason's friend Roger from the bar next door, waking him from (or to) a hangover. Jason:

    "I've got a few calls to make first. Apologies."

    "Ah-huh. That's how drunks start the day."

    "I can't imagine you starting the day that way."

    "Yeah, well. I'm not a drunk. I'm an alcoholic. There's a difference."

    The distinction escaped me and my head was starting to hurt again. "Enlighten me."

    "I may down most of a bottle of cognac every day --- I've been doing it for forty years ---but I don't ever get drunk. I don't like the feeling of being out of control."

--- Leslie Seamana
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