You can’t blame the material.
The story of Sam Israel, the Bayou Group founder and subject of Guy Lawson’s new Octopus, is almost too outlandish to be true. Son of a wealthy family, Israel built a $450 million hedge fund based almost entirely on lies and years later infamously fled the state after a laughably amateurish attempt to fake his own suicide.
Lawson’s retelling takes the high road, using streams of Israel’s narration that Lawson later concedes may be the half-truths or the ravings of a madman. Reality be damned, it’s an exciting tale, especially at the book’s midpoint, when Israel and his unsophisticated CFO Ken Marino (both of whom received 20 year prison sentences) make the acquaintance of an alleged CIA agent with plans to induct them into a secret “Octopus” shadow society to trade bonds for trillion dollar paydays.
The ruse is plainly a con, but the highly-detailed ways that the charlatans gain Israel’s trust make for a story as thrilling as any Hollywood tale. An alleged tape of the “real” shooting of John F Kennedy makes a cameo, as do untold billions of government money stashed on an exotic Asian island. Israel is plainly deluded and, at the book’s best parts, so is the reader—could any part of this story be true?
Octopus spends much time following Israel around the world, surrounded with accomplices so buffoonish they would not be out of place in an Austin Powers sequel. One can’t shake the feeling that Lawson thinks Israel, who cooperated with the novel, is even more absurd than that fictitious international man of mystery. The author assigns fake names to several characters that seem ripped straight out of a children’s menu at EPCOT center—I’ll have a plate of the Prince and Princess Stromboli[i] please, and make sure Mickey stops by for a photo.
Clumsy alias’ are hardly the book’s only drawback. Casual readers could be confused for believing that long stretches of narrative have been accidentally copied and pasted one after another. Israel flies to some European country in first class (always), meets with some sort of sketchily-defined con artist, becomes excited about a plainly falsified transaction, flies home and is soon crushed when the opportunity falls through. Rinse and repeat. At a certain point, the book feels like a rain delay at a baseball game—it’s time to cut your losses and leave the stands.
Anecdotes of Israel’s personal unraveling quickly become similarly exhausting. Lawson quotes his subject on what seems like every page. At one point, for instance, Israel confides, “I was really on edge. I was never sleeping. I was threatening people. Brutally. I was screaming at everybody. No one was helping. No one was performing.” At certain points in the book, readers might feel the same way.
The conflicting stories about whom to believe grow old fast. Lawson recounts, “Sam said the conversation took place in the basement of his house on Buckout Road, as he recovered from back surgery. Marino said it happened in the boardroom at the boathouse. [Original Bayou principal Jimmy Marquez] angrily refused to comment. Israel claimed Marquez and Marino came to him with the idea of falsifying the fund’s results. Marino said that the plan came from Israel and Marquez.”
Octopus has spectacular subject matter and a fun nautical title, but unlike the best in the narrative finance genre, this is a beach read with too few UV rays—leaving the reader cold.
[i] An actual Octopus pseudonym (!)