San Diego Back in the 1960s, people were pigeonholed by the movies they enjoyed. Critics concluded that bumpkins liked The Sound of Music (1965), while the worldly-wise liked The Graduate (1967). One movie was light and maudlin, the other dark and carnal, and nobody could possibly appreciate both. This month, Solana Beach author/economist/ lawyer Todd Buchholz pulls off a rare feat: his light book is published at the same time as his dark -- very dark -- book.
His nonfiction New Ideas from Dead CEOs (Collins) is a happy and illuminating read about successful chief executive officers. His first novel, The Castro Gene (Oceanview), features a Mafia-connected, sociopathic hedge fund honcho who manipulates both markets and underlings, commits murder while engaged in kinky sex, and tries to pass the blame to his henchmen. It also features an aged female sex queen who has slept with mobsters like Meyer Lansky and politicians like Bobby and Jack Kennedy but says Fidel Castro was the most satisfying in bed. In addition to sex, The Castro Gene has lots of violence.
Buchholz's lively writing hardly fits with his academic training. He was educated in economics and the law (Cambridge and Harvard), was director of economic policy under George H.W. Bush, and was managing director of the $15 billion Tiger hedge fund, among many things. Despite such a Dullsville background, his writing sparkles -- and rages when it has to.
For example, in New Ideas from Dead CEOs, Buchholz devotes a chapter to Akio Morita, cofounder of Sony. After World War II, the new company came up with a tape recorder that, unfortunately, weighed 100 pounds, more than many Japanese people. Writes Buchholz, "Like a door-to-door salesman, he [Morita] cold-called, hot-tipped, and hop-scotched across Tokyo, lugging the beast in and out of his Datsun truck and demonstrating the magical recording device. Businesses and households enjoyed the novelty, but virtually no one reached in his billfold when Akio finished speaking, singing, and tap-dancing before the microphone." Vivid, that.
Contrast it with words from The Castro Gene: "The former Havana Hilton droops over the Havana skyline like an addled dowager who's misplaced her bra." Or "Larsen thought the light beams resembled worms migrating in all directions around the trash collage, some parts of which were splattered with blood, Jackson Pollock style." Or in one bedroom scene, "She felt as if she were being kidnapped by a wave of testosterone." Or an analyst who works for the hedge fund, trying to persuade the paranoiac boss to make an acquisition. The analyst "started waving his arms, pounding an imaginary table. Chopping, cutting, slicing, like a two-bit hawker at the county fair demonstrating the new Ronco vegetable dicer." After he is outmanipulated and loses a bundle, the analyst commits suicide. Shrugs a former colleague, "You pack a million Type A's between Wall Street and Rockefeller Center, dangle millions in front of their wide eyes, and demand that they each negotiate a better deal with all the others, and you're sure to get some guys flipping out."
New Ideas from Dead CEOs has nuggets on San Diego. For example, Morita "was nervous about the quality of U.S. workmanship when the Rancho Bernardo site opened in 1972," writes Buchholz. "In the beginning, American plant workers were merely reassembling television sets that had already been assembled, adjusted, and disassembled in Japan." To guarantee quality, Sony rigged the assembly line to make mistakes, thus showing Rancho Bernardo employees how errors could ruin TV sets.
Buchholz devotes a chapter to Ray Kroc, who made McDonald's into a powerhouse and tried to do the same with the Padres. In his youth, he was a pianist, taking gigs all over Chicago. One time he discovered that he was playing in a whorehouse. He got out of there. Kroc also played piano in a Florida gangster hangout launched by Barbara Walters's father. And Kroc sold Florida swampland -- a popular scam in those days.
When he arrived in San Diego, Kroc had already made his fortune. But he was still a cheapskate. His chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce would pull up to Price Club (the forerunner of Costco), and Kroc would shop for bargains. He chewed out his wife Joan (San Diego's greatest philanthropist) for wasting a napkin in which she had wrapped an orange. They were riding in his $8 million jet. His biggest local promotional coup was with the Padres in 1974. The team was getting whupped; he got on the P.A. system and apologized to the fans for the "stupid baseball playing." An opposing Houston Astros player complained that Kroc was addressing athletes like "short-order cooks." The next time the Astros were in town, short-order cooks got in free. Kroc stationed them right behind the Astros dugout. The fans loved it. Oh, yes: the game in which Kroc grabbed the microphone marked the debut of the Chicken, one of pro sports' most endearing mascots. Kroc understood that pro sports is entertainment, just as he understood that hamburgers and humbuggery can work together, as long as the outlets offer quality food at a good price.
Despite his background in the ponderous field of economics, Buchholz and his family are steeped in the dramatic arts. His wife Debby is general manager of the La Jolla Playhouse. His oldest daughter, Victoria, a high school freshman, has written a play that will be performed at the North Coast Repertory Theatre June 4 through 7. He is coproducer of the Broadway hit Jersey Boys.
His gift for drama comes through in The Castro Gene. The hero is a boxer, Luke, who quits because he kills an opponent -- an event described graphically. ("Luke fired a left hook to his temple that cracked like a thunderbolt. His opponent's head snapped to the right, his body stiffened as he dropped on his side like a heavy door knocked off its hinges.... Luke got back his cojones. But he paid for them with the life of Frederico Perez.") Luke's father is a professor of English literature at Columbia University. There is a libertine U.S. senator from Florida who takes money from both pro-Castro and anti-Castro Cubans. His daughter is a liberal activist; she and Luke engage in some liberal, hyperactive lovemaking.