The Books of 2016: The Runners-Up

A couple more books totally worth reading that just weren’t quite my favorites last year…

The Power of the Dog
& The Cartel, by Don Winslow

I’m not sure these even qualify as fiction, because both novels are a thinly-veiled (VERY) retelling of the rise of the modern Mexican cartels seen through the lens of one cartel boss in particular and the DEA agent whose entire life is consumed with bringing him down.

Winslow has done a lot of the better reporting on the Drug War over the years, and anybody even slightly familiar with that history will recognize a lot of the events in the books as being ripped right out of our real-world headlines; from the smashing of the original marijuana cartels in the 70’s (the original War on Drugs funded by America in Mexico) that was so successful in its myopic goal that it led directly to the much stronger, more resilient modern cartels that have sprung up since the 90’s… to the increasingly nihilistic violence that has accompanied the cartels’ various wars for territory, to the Mexican mainstream media bowing out of covering the drug war at all due to the incredible cost they paid in doing so, to said coverage being picked up by hopefully-anonymous bloggers… it’s all in here, presented in a decades and generations-spanning epic that rivals the Godfather series in its scope and surpasses it in emotional impact.

I read both of these back to back when I had some time off over the summer and, I’m not going to lie: I enjoyed them tremendously but they also put me into a funk for a few days. Admittedly, I’ve been against the War on Drugs for years at this point, but this book really drives home the cost that’s being paid by EVERYONE; the users, law enforcement, the taxpayers funding all of the useless “enforcement” activity, the dealers, and, of course, the everyday citizens of Mexico who would love nothing more than to ignore it all but can’t, because it intrudes into their lives down in Mexico in ways the American consumers of said products would never, ever tolerate. Well, for now. Let’s see where we’re at after a few more years of the opiate epidemic. The cheap heroin all those Oxy addicts are going to need has to come from somewhere…

It’s grim, depressing stuff, but holds up as a story (Winslow’s sharp, concise writing keeps this long duo moving along without ever bogging down) and I recommend it to anyone who wants a readable way of understanding the War on Drugs without wading through newspaper articles or academia, or who just enjoys a good crime read.

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, by Dan Lyons

I wanted to dislike this book. I didn’t love Lyons’ Fake Steve Jobs shit, I don’t particularly like tales, fictional or not, of “oddball miscreant doesn’t fit in but is secretly smarter than everyone in the In Group”, but I realized that something I dislike more than all of those is Start-Up Culture. That, combined with the recommendation of a good friend who has worked for nothing but Silicon Valley startups since we met in the late 90’s, was enough to get me to read this thing.

I’ve also worked for some startups, but only of the Web 1.0 variety and certainly not in California. I had fun, made life-long friends and learned a lot. I did NOT become a millionaire or even a thousandaire, really. And I learned that startups are mostly bullshit and hot air, and what wealth any of them generate is mostly extracted at an extreme discount from young, smart but naive kids who don’t know any better. The fact that companies like Uber and Twitter and, fuck, even Amazon are super-famous and considered Best of Breed even though they literally DO NOT MAKE ANY FUCKING MONEY is just fucking infuriating.

This… is starting to sound like the topic of another post, so let’s get back to the book for now.

Disrupted does one thing pretty goddamned well: show what fucking insane, intense bullshit almost all startups are. They’re snake-oil factories, run, often, by borderline sociopaths who will extract value from the labor of their employees and use that to pump up valuations with a goal of getting a new business over the hump of being a startup and turning it into a long-term profitable business. HAHAHAHAHAHAH JUST FUCKING KIDDING! The goal is to baffle venture/vulture capitalists into ponying up a large number of millions in VC funding and then keep the smokescreen up using that money until an IPO occurs, at which point anywhere from one to even five folks get really rich and everybody else gets fucked when the business inevitably collapses under the weight of real-world expectations of profitability that their horseshit business idea never had a snowball’s chance in hell of meeting.

This is the story of those 99 out of 100 startups that, somehow, the completely-compromised tech “press” manages to rarely if ever cover. The ones that fail, completely and with a lot of wreckage left behind. The simple truth is: very, very few people get rich at this shit, and it’s mostly a whole lot of people who ponied up a whole lot of sweat equity getting a whole lot of fucked.

Disrupted, in particular, tells that story of one specific real-world firm the middle-aged and suddenly-careerless author finds himself working for as a not-really-even-wanted media/marketing/PR flack dude. He’s surrounded by millennials for whom this is a first gig so they love all the fluffy, non-work-related bullshit (parties! free beer! nerf swordfights!) that they’re getting in lieu of, say, a living wage or health care. They’re also stunningly, spectacularly bad at their jobs, according to the old-media author who’s been dumped into their midst, and whose many decades of hard-earned, real-world work experience is about as welcome and wanted as a fart at a funeral. Lyons quickly also realizes that his immediate bosses weren’t told about him being hired, and that the big boss who did hire him probably did so solely for the small bit of real-world media cachet Lyons’ name carried as a former writer for Newsweek crossed with the bit of Internet fame he had as the Fake Steve Jobs guy.

Hijinks ensue as Dan bravely tries to do real work and come up with real projects that might actually turn into something useful for a company he’s never quite sure has an actual product worth investing in or buying. Eventually, things sour, Dan leaves, and a weird coda occurs where (ALLEGEDLY) his former bosses at this place get wind of his book idea and possibly break into his house to steal the laptop it’s being written on. Read the book if you want the details of that; suffice to say that I liked that part best because it hammers home the point that too many people are otherwise willing to hem and haw about: most of these tech start-up founders are real fuckers, if not outright sociopaths. And I don’t mean in the “well, Steve Jobs was a real asshole” way; Steve at least was an asshole in service of a vision that actually produced beautiful products and created thousands of good jobs and made a whole lot of people lots of money and so on. The founders in this book, of which there are a lot more of in the world than there are Steve Jobs, know their product is shit and rely on every old school, pre-Internet trick the sales greaseballs of the world have been using to scam people out of money since a neanderthal with slicked-back hair and a tamer-than-yours mastodon to ride around on sold ice to an eskimo. If anything, Lyons doesn’t hammer this point home enough: a very lot of the startups that are hailed as innovative, new technology wonders are actually nothing more than classic sales scams dressed up in new suits; think Theranos moreso than Google.

In the end, I liked this book because it was a great hate read, in the tradition of how I enjoyed PJ O’Rourke (before he went full Cato) and still enjoy Matt Taibbi (until Putin orders Trump to have him rubbed out). It’s a total case of a book reinforcing shit I’m already mostly in agreement with, which isn’t what I usually seek out in a book, but I need one or two of those a year just to keep me steady.

It’s by no means a great book, but it sets hard facts against a lot of shit I already suspected was going on in that industry in general, and Dan’s a good-enough writer to where it was surprisingly fun to get through. I can’t recommend it unless you have worked at a start-up yourself, really, or are at least really familiar with the tropes of Silly Valley start-up culture. If you’re a complete outsider to all of that, you’re just going to think “what a bunch of useless assholes” without also getting to enjoy all the inside baseball snark the book is quite enjoyably larded up with.

So there you go. Two more books that I seem to have written more about than my actual favorites of the past year. Go figure.