The cover of Chris Lehmann's new collection of essays, Rich People Things, is a simple pen-and-ink drawing by illustrator Peter Arkle. It looks as if it could have fallen from the pages of the latest indie graphic novel, and its meaning is similarly straightforward. The scene, from the antique armchair to the pair of eyeglasses to the cat, is laden with dollar signs. Even a glass of wine, presumably spilled by the cat, has pooled to form a dark puddle in that familiar snake-and-staff shape. Everything we are meant to understand -- not just luxury cars or tennis-club memberships -- is connected in some way with money.
The genesis of Rich People Things was an article of the same name Lehmann wrote for the then-nascent website The Awl in early 2009. (Disclosure: I also contribute to The Awl, though, like Lehmann, I've never been paid by the site.) The piece, a relentless dressing-down of the "money culture" at New York magazine, Lehmann's former employer, was initially considered a one-off by both Lehmann and The Awl's editors. But, as Lehmann explains in his book's introduction, almost as soon as he had filed the New York missive, he came across another bit of bourgeois flotsam that stoked his ire, "a Washington Post front page piece about how the Obama administration's spending priorities would unduly punish taxpayers earning more than $250,000 a year." As Lehmann puts it, "The article reeked of horseshit." The "Rich People Things" column was born.
One year later, Rich People Things is now a book of 27 essays, most of which -- "Steve Forbes," "Meritocracy," "The Stock Market" -- are brand-new, inspired by The Awl column but having never appeared there. And what a year it's been! With the protracted recession, the devastating BP oil tragedy, and the continued flagrance of record Wall Street bonuses, Lehmann is a man surrounded by almost too much material. As his range of targets expands, it seems as if Lehmann's anger has fomented at a similar rate. If you thought the title and cover were direct, wait until you dive into the blistering critiques therein.
To put it simply, if you don't like reading angry rants, Rich People Things is not for you. That's not to say that the book is at all unfocused or belligerent -- but it's not the kind of affable, jocular criticism you'd get from a Mark Twain or a P.J. O'Rourke. Reading an O'Rourke essay, with its quippy turns of phrase and tongue-in-cheek punning, you could imagine getting the author to abandon even his deepest beliefs in return for a Cuban cigar and a trip on your schooner. Rich People Things does not suffer from similar whimsy.
Though people familiar with Lehmann's Twitter account know he's funny, and though the darkly humorous bits of Rich People Things are many and intentional, this book is less a good-natured poke at the upper classes and more an unrelenting siege on the gated communities of robber barons. Lehmann, formerly an editor at Congressional Quarterly and now an overseer at Yahoo! News, writes with a noticeable disdain for his subjects, nearly all of whom, if you're of a certain ilk, you'll find disdainful as well.
In chapter six, "The Free Market," Lehmann fantasizes about a world in which New York Times op-ed oracle Thomas Friedman is put to work in a textile mill. "Let him see how flat the market-mastered world looks then." In chapter 11's excoriation of Wired, Lehmann outright calls Chris Anderson, that magazine's editor, a "thief." Following a passage that cites allegations of plagiarism of Anderson's 2009 book Free, Lehmann writes, "During more forthright eras of intellectual discourse, the polite term for this M.O. would be 'hucksterism' or -- not to put too fine a point on it -- 'theft.' Most college kids caught in the same act would certainly get swiftly disciplined or expelled -- and, one presumes, any contract writer in Anderson's employ would be just as quickly purged from the roster of Wired contributors had his copy been published with dozens of unattributed liftings from the work of others."
Rich People Things is dazzling in its intensity, particularly if you agree that people like David Brooks are bad for the common good. It is at its best, though, when it coyly questions the very things and people to whom a book like this might appeal. An honest reporter at heart (there is extensive sourcing throughout the book), Lehmann puts the left's sacred cows on the same fire as the right's. "The Democratic Party," "The Creative Class," and "The New York Times" are all chapters in Rich People Things, and they're just as sharp and brutal as the essays railing against the right's darlings. Not even college is spared: "So the once-noble dream of a universal higher learning has been transformed, as have so many other social goods in America, into a brutally class-segmented market."
My only fear for a book like this is that it will find itself in front of the eyes of the exact wrong people. Chances are that if you read The American Prospect, which has pilloried David Brooks more than once, you'll enjoy Rich People Things. The problem, however, is that these essays shouldn't only be found in hemp tote bags at farmers markets (both of which will certainly be chapters in the second edition); they should be on the desks of politicians, Wall Street executives, and media titans. In the same way many staunch conservatives will never pay a dime to see a Michael Moore film, it's difficult to imagine an Atlas Shrugged acolyte giving Lehmann's chapter on Ayn Rand a thoughtful read. When you consider that, you must also consider that perhaps Rich People Things is just an exercise in catharsis for both the author and the reader.
Notably, Lehmann ends with a lengthy quotation from late progressive journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd, an excerpt of which reads, resignedly, "What these men are we have made them. ... Their power is greater to-day than it was yesterday, and will be greater tomorrow."