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Jake Halpern
Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Us Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-374-10823-6
Publication Date: 10-14-2014
242 Pages; $25
Date Reviewed: 01-23-2015
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2015

Index:  Non-Fiction

It sometimes seems as if we must erase our memories. The financial fiasco of my formative years was the S&L Crisis. The late, great, straight-shooting William J. Crawford told us during the hearings that ensued that "The best way to rob a bank is to own one." Here we are, some thirty years, and how many crises? later, well into the 21st century, still falling for the same con. Who would have guessed that film noir would be a trickle-down strategy?

Look no further than the superb non-fiction noir by Jake Halpern, 'Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld,' for a toe-tapping tour of America's latest financial underworld. In a little over 200 pages, Halpern succeeds where decades of legislation and one thriller after another have not. In this book, you meet utterly engaging real people who game the system from the bottom up. These characters, none of whom are exactly breaking the law, are wept into the grey zone of overdue consumer debt. There's big money to be made when you sweep up a lot of little fishes.

} At the center of the book are Aaron Siegel, a Buffalo-bred banker who was on a fast track to Wall Street, and Brandon Wilson, a former armed robber. Siegel, who had his hands in the wild world of hedge funds, decided to move back home, but quickly became bored working for Bank of America. In his spare time, he started buying consumer debt, which we learn is called "paper," even though it is really just Excel spreadsheets. He needed connections to get the paper, and muscle to make sure the debts got paid. That was Brandon.

As Halpern tells their story, readers are immersed in a world next door, where what is legal is not exactly certain, even if it is certainly not right. Like every great noir storyteller, Halpern strips down to the essentials. We're in this for the scam, and men and women who combine bravado and desperation in a ratio that makes them incredibly entertaining. Halpern gives us that and a plot involving some "bad paper" that is twisty and unnerving. Brandon is a wild card, prone to effectively violent actions. Aaron is a money man, nervois to the hilt but unwilling to give up the thrills of this gray zone. Families and co-workers are vivid and all very engaging. We like them.

But Halpern's careful to cover the other side of the equation as well, giving portraits of those who fell into unpayable consumer debt. These are bad apples. They aren't "takers." They're working single mothers, small families, working two and three jobs who fall behind. You can be sure of this; they don't own the banks, then owe them.

'Bad Paper' is written with a generous energy that makes it incredibly fun to read, even as it lays bare the tragic state of the American Banking industry. It turns out that those roaming piratical skyscrapers in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life were pretty much right-on. It's easy to forget that the American Wild West was financed from back East. Halpern's book is a timely reminder that works on a scale most of us can get. It's an incredibly important work because it is an amazing enjoyable reading experience. In this book, trickle-down non-fiction noir strikes gold.

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