'The Wolf of Wall Street' by Jordan Belfort - Review - Is there a moral to this ultimate story of modern immorality?

Despite the impression you might expect from having watched the Scorsese film, this is an intelligently written book from a sober perspective of contrition about a life of meaningless excess, wasted opportunity, and harrowing addiction - and the resulting collateral damage to the innocent.

You might be forgiven from reading a few out-of-context quotations for thinking Belfort is unrepentant for his crimes against society. But nothing is further from the truth. It would be a mistake to consider that when the narrator finds humour in the terrible excesses of his destructive years, it is an indication he thinks it was a positive way to live life. It’s the comedy which make the tragedy so starkly apparent.

Belfort’s writes about all his devious financial schemes and the events surrounding his egregiously insane binges on drugs, sex, and money with a wry but savvy neutrality, allowing you the space to make up your own mind about his actions. Then later he clearly does point out how wrong his actions are both literally and by starkly expressing the negative destruction caused on his victims, his loved-ones, and himself. This is far more effective than constantly flogging himself in penance throughout every chapter. Penance is never really that convincing or engaging. He allows the humour and detail to breathe, letting the reader get drawn into the addict fantasy narrative, until one is snapped back to reality - much like his own experience of self-delusion in the face of an addiction-ravaged lifestyle.

The best example of this is the section describing his final collapse into rabid drug mayhem and his consequent suicide attempt. He describes the events with the deluded voice of his brutal inner addict, whom he negatively characterises as ‘the Wolf of Wall Street’ - but his wiser self is describing the passage with rueful hindsight, as the horrible consequences become clear. Understanding the seductive force of this inner bully / tempter is key to understanding the narratorial dynamic.

This is all quite the opposite of Scorsese’s take, which actually seems to glamourise the hedonism. The film shows little serious consequence for the depravity, but importantly downplays the inner suffering and turmoil that Belfort describes in the book. Belfort was in a co-dependent relationship with drugs and his wife, and had extremely low self-esteem. It’s hard to envy this man. The book manages to go through all the gory details without odious grovelling to the reader or self-flagellation - ‘drizzling’ as he might put it - which would just be another cheap sell.

Belfort is objectively an uncannily good salesman. But the book feels like an uncommonly real confession. He denies himself the oleaginous voice of the pious convert - he denies himself the sell. It would be too easy for him to make the book an irresistible bargain for the reader’s forgiveness. In the path to sobriety the addict has to get to a point of truth from which he can’t ever hide again, one learns from the book. And that’s what this writing represents, I feel. It’s a genuine tragedy.

This narrative dynamic - the tussle between The Wolf of Wall Street and Jordan Belfort - is the central theme. But there other qualities to commend the book. Belfort has a really good knack for humour, even in the depths of the tragedy unfolding through the pages. The character observation and detail is also engaging. He gets to the core of people’s unique mix of positive and negative qualities without dredging us through flowery literary indulgence. It’s again tragic when he describes the brilliant business advice offered to Steve Madden by Elliot Levigne, having just described the latter’s near-suicidal and uncontrollable gambling, sex, and drug addictions. The irreversible self-abasement of a talented individual gives the impression of genuine sadness at the waste of it all.

The book’s narrative is disjointed, betraying the mode of autobiographical confession of the writer’s approach. However there is a definite solid, steady line running through the book from addiction and excess to reckoning and sobriety. This is the true organisational logic of the book.

There are clearly moments of embellishment and tidying of events, knowingly and less so, it feels. However, this book is fundamentally about honesty - and dishonesty. One wouldn’t have learned anything about deceit and self-deceit if this opposition hadn’t been continuously contested throughout the story. As Belfort stumbles further and further into perdition in clouds of cocaine and Ferrari exhaust fumes, you feel him slowly awakening from the grand delusion. And that comes with a sense of relief - one noticeably lacking from the film.

Scorcese’s 2013 film is a remarkable work of cinema. It does feel more like a reworking of the rags-to-riches-to-rags narrative of Goodfellas than the story of Jordan Belfort. Conspicuously, Di Caprio’s Belfort cynically incites his Strattonites to con their clients, to ’unload the dogshit on them’. This, as Belfort has since commented, was totally the opposite of his approach. Despite the fact he and his firm were conning the buyers, they were actively convincing themselves that they were in some way working in their interest. But it makes the Wolf of the film more rapscallious to show him acting with contempt for his ‘whales’. This is illustrates how Scorces’s Belfort is a deep mischaracterisation in that he is actually honest with himself (and even his confidantes). The real Belfort was not honest with even himself - this is his hamartia.

Of course there are many other important technical differences between the film and book such as conflation of characters and events, straightening out of the timeline, and major omissions from and alterations to the facts (Belfort never changed his mind about leaving Stratton Oakmont, for example). But overall, the main contrast with the book is that the film forgives and even promotes the excesses of the reprobates. This happens aesthetically rather than literally. The book leads its audience to much more of a sense of reckoning, restitution, and ultimate meaning from the hedonistic emptiness of Belfort’s egregious life.

And this is really what the book brings the reader - a sense of movement from addiction to sobriety, from excess to sanity, from constant panicked flight from reality to a more centred self-knowledge. There is no grand religious conversion, but there is at least prospect of living a life of some kind of meaning, and the hope of genuine relationships. As such the book becomes the cautionary parable the film can never manage to be.