Seeking both a job and a father figure, a young and eager would-be trader latches on to an old and corrupt Wall Street hand. The newcomer is a near-instant success and branches out on his own. Dizzy with self-assurance and girded by cocaine, he makes a series of monumentally stupid trades, and digs himself deeper trying to recover. In so doing, he realizes how easy it is to convince people and institutions of his supposed success, if only because they are as blinded by greed as he is. Salvation comes only when the eager young man, now older and with a divorce and a bad back under his belt, loses everything and realizes the folly of his ways. Roll credits.
Except Sam Israel, Octopus’s addled protagonist, is no Bud Fox. The reader is thrown completely sideways midway through Guy Lawson’s readily digestible narrative. Along with being an accomplished drummer and convincing dilettante, Israel is also a conspiracy nut who gets involved with a shadowy group of purported CIA types who clue him into a secret bond trading market favoured by the 13 families who run the world, and who probably had JFK killed. (The book’s title is an allusion to the group’s global power.) Israel, fully convinced by the spiel and desperate to right his losses, goes in hook, line and sinker, to the tune of $150 million—falling for a more elaborate version of his con, essentially.
It’s an astounding story that forces you to remind yourself that this actually happened not 10 years ago, to real people with real money. If anything, Octopus is more like 1973’s The Sting: the bigger and more absurd the lie, the more likely people will fall for it.