Random House 1998, $20.00
It's been said that God helps those who help themselves. God Himself
never said so, at least not in any scriptural revelation commonly
known to man. But that doesn't stop Americans from believing this
principle wholeheartedly--and dropping $24.95 plus tax every chance
they get for the latest tome from the "self help" publishers
so that they can help themselves to financial prosperity, inner
peace and rock-hard abs.
These books range from ponderous treatises to sanitized fluff and
present a myriad of doctrines, strategies and meditations "guaranteed"
in most cases to give the reader what he wants. You know the current
crop of gurus--Anthony Robbins (Awaken the Giant Within), Steven
Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), Deepak Chopra
(Creating Affluence; Ageless Body, Timeless Mind), and even Dr.
Laura Schlessinger (Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives),
just to name a few. Their names are bywords for a certain blend
of psychological insight, marketing genius and plain old hucksterism
that Americans simply can't resist.
It's time to add one more name to that list--Brother Ty. But Brother
Ty's book is different, you see, (no, really--it is!) because he's
managed to out-tell the storytellers and out-sell the marketers,
all while making the reader laugh at Ty's competitors. That he had
a little help from Christopher Buckley, one of the funniest writers
around (The White House Mess; Thank You for Smoking; Wry Martinis),
and John Tierney, a New York Times Magazine staff writer, hardly
detracts from his accomplishment. That he is not a real person hardly
matters either, for in the world of self help, it's results that
matter, and if your techniques work, you don't have to be real.
(Have you ever seen a Tony Robbins video? Only Jim Carey is a better
Brother Ty (as in "Tycoon") is a former Wall Street trader
who forsook the world for the contemplative life at Cana Monastery
in New York state. The brothers at Cana make wine--"Cana 20/20"--which
is about as bad as it sounds. The wine's so bad, in fact, that the
monastery is about to go bankrupt, no easy feat for a group of men
under vows of poverty. In desperation, the Abbot puts aside the
breviary of St. Thaddeus, who preached mortification of the flesh
to the nth degree, and picks up Creating Affluence by Deepak Chopra,
who is less than enthusiastic about sleeping in bramble bushes.
In the mean time, Brother Ty is providentially in the right place
at the right time (on an errand for the Abbot) to pick up his first
hot stock tip since leaving the Street. The Cana Hedge Fund begins
to grow. While Brother Ty credits all the success to God Himself
working through the breviary, the Abbot suspects that it is actually
Chopra's principles at work for the monastery.
The Abbot quickly applies Chopra's techniques to the monatery's
wine-making efforts, bringing in an attractive management consultant
(!) named Philomena to help turn Cana's sales around. Philomena
and the monks create a wildly successful advertising campaign for
Cana wine, culminating in an executive retreat center at the monastery
complete with a waterfall ride (the "Cask-Ade") and a
gift shop. They ignore the fact that their wine is undrinkable,
however, relying on the Chopran command to "let the universe
work out the details." However, the universe doesn't hold up
its end of the Chopran bargain, and the wine itself remains undrinkable
despite its fancy new label. The monks' resulting strategies for
filling the millions of orders (as well as the unorthodox advertising
campaigns) raise eyebrows back in Rome, and a papal investigator
is dispatched. The controversy also catches the attention of the
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and even 60 Minutes. (Hmmn
. . . . If you had to choose between the two . . . .) Soon, gallows
humor is the order of the day for the monks, who are convinced that
if they escape the BATF, Rome will relocate them to serve in a tropical
leper colony. In the end, the monks manage to put their newfound
knowledge of the self-help industry to good use, but the story of
how they get there is a great read.
Brother Ty's book is such an effective parody of the self-help
publishing world because it employs all the tried-and-true techniques
of the genre. The story is used as a backdrop for Brother Ty's Seven
and a Half Laws of Spiritual and Financial Growth, and each chapter
ends with one of the seven and a half laws, a "Market Meditation"
and a prayer of reflection on the lessons presented in the chapter.
Like the principles taught in so many self-help books, these end-of-the-chapter
snippets cater more to the readers selfish instincts than
to his needs for genuine self improvement. See, e.g., Law Number
Two--"God Loves The Poor, But That Doesn't Mean He Wants You
To Fly Coach." (Brother Ty explains in an introductory Author's
Note that the Market Meditations were drafted by Messrs. Buckley
and Tierney and were included because, according to the publisher,
such things are "a necessity in today's personal growth book
God Is My Broker also stakes out what is, to my knowledge, new
territory in the self-help world--criticism of one's competitors.
The Abbot, whose spirits have been lifted by Deepak Chopra, starts
the monks on a survey of other self-help literature. Soon, the schisms
begin in the form of the Robbinites vs. the Coveyans, with occasional
disciples of Napoleon Hill, Dale Carnegie, Harvey MacKay and even
Norman Vincent Peale thrown in for good measure. The monks finally
find unity in their old breviary, and none too soon for Brother
Ty's tastes. But the endless disputations and quotations from these
self-appointed self-help authorities allow Brother Ty to ridicule
them more effectively than he could by attempting to take them seriously.
Sooner or later, someone had to write this book. There aren't many
good parodies of self-help literature out there, and that's a shame,
given how much material there is to work with. A few artists have
made promising attempts--before he drove himself to an early grave
with his self-destructive behavior, Chris Farley of Saturday Night
Live did a nice job with the Matt Foley character, a third-rate,
overweight motivational speaker who punctuated his sentences with
air quotes and reminded his young-adult audiences that if they didn't
shape up, "You'll be LIVING in a VAN, DOWN BY THE RIVER!"
And though few may have seen it, the now-famous Ben Stiller did
a top-notch Anthony Robbins infomercial impression a few years back,
emphasizing Robbins' polished-white dental effect: "I'll hypnotize
you with my teeth!"
Then there's the Dilbert comic strip, which has spawned several
management books of its own (The Dilbert Principle; The Dilbert
Future). Brother Ty's book manages to parody with a broader brush
than these and similar efforts, though, poking fun at the naive
optimism and boundless self-aggrandizement that pervade so many
self-help books, whether the topic is financial management, spiritual
improvement or an all-melon diet.
As always, the best recommendation for a book like this is that
people aren't sure if it's supposed to be taken seriously or not
until they start reading, and that's exactly what I've seen happen
to friends who have seen ads for the book or heard me talking about
it. Given the nature of the claims made by self-help authors today
(whoever heard of an "ageless" body, anyway, and what's
a "timeless" mind), I suppose I can't blame them too much.
Besides, in today's turbulent market, wouldn't you like to believe
that you could have God for your broker?
*John Pickering is an associate with the law firm of Balch &
Bingham in Birmingham, Alabama.