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Checked and Balanced: Kenny Boy Lay: as bad as he wants to be.

Expertly Screwed

Novelist Jess Walter on the greed glut

By David Templeton

In its ongoing quest for the ultimate postfilm conversation, Talking Pictures takes interesting people to interesting movies.

'That movie did everything a documentary should do! It stood up as journalism while still being very compelling and entertaining," remarks journalist-turned-novelist Jess Walter as he makes his way up the aisle of the Smith Rafael Film Center where we've just caught a midafternoon screening of the popular documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. The film, still going strong after a month in release—helped in part by the recent, high-profile overturning of some of the Enron convictions—is based on the book by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, which Walter cites as one of his favorites in recent years. Both the film and the book chronicle the rise and fall of the tarnished corporate giant.

And somehow, the movie also manages to make it funny.

"The film takes this really complex subject and made it easily understandable," Walter observes a few minutes later, seated at a nearby cafe. "In addition to being packed with shots of strippers and scenes from The Simpsons and tunes by Tom Waits—the three basic food groups of modern entertainment—this was a clear, explanatory exploration of what happened with Enron. I got into journalism because I thought people were getting screwed, and I wanted to uncover that. So in that way, it was just great to see reporters asking questions that cause consternation among Enron officials. Watching those Enron guys squirm made me very proud of my old profession."

Based in Spokane, Wash., Walter is in California to promote his outstanding new comic novel, Citizen Vince ($24.95; Regan Books), in which a small-time criminal in the witness protection program tries desperately to avoid being rubbed out by hit men while simultaneously trying to decide who to vote for in the 1980 presidential election. In person, Walter is much like his writing: straightforward, well-informed and highly amused by the most terrible things.

"I wrote about the 1980 presidential election because that was the moment we all became one-issue voters, and that one issue was 'How do we feel?'" he says. "When Ronald Reagan asked, 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?' it became the defining question in American Politics. Less than 20 years before Reagan, it had been Kennedy with, 'Ask not what America can do for you, but what you can do for America.' Reagan ushered in a new era of American selfishness that leads right through to today and helped create the environment in which the Enron debacle could happen."

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the World shows how a band of very slick businessmen can build a billion-dollar business on economic models and "products" that are little more than smoke and mirrors. In Walter's view, such high-stakes prestidigitation becomes possible anytime the usual system of checks and balances is eliminated.

"Look," Walter explains, "in some ways, Enron was only doing what companies are supposed to do: make money. But any time you have a company, or a presidential administration, chugging along without anyone ever being able to stand up and say, 'Wait a minute. That's illegal. That's wrong,' then that corporation or that administration will probably veer off in an unwise direction, because on day one it might have been wrong, but on day two—if no one was there to stop the practice—then it becomes standard operating procedure.

"Unfortunately . . ."

Walter pauses to sip his coffee, allowing that "unfortunately" to swell to Godzilla-like proportions before concluding his thought.

"Unfortunately, those checks-and-balances are part of what the Bush administration sees as the great evil of our country," he continues. "They hate the idea of anyone checking up on anything. They've seriously detoothed the press, and worked to remove anyone who can see what they are doing. Then if you look at the people Bush has appointed to regulatory agencies, they are the people who should not be writing regulation. The people who are, right now, writing the next Clean Air Act are the polluters. The people writing the next Healthy Forest Act are the logging companies.

"Bush has given the keys for the car to the teenagers," Walter says with finality, "and those cars are going to get wrapped around telephone poles—because that's what teenagers do with cars."

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From the June 15-21, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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