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Nonfiction in Brief

A FOOL AND HIS MONEY The Odyssey of an Average Investor by John Rothchild (Viking: $17.95)

January 31, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

Every cultural obsession must have its pundits, but the frantic pursuit of money in the '80s has remained relatively unscathed by satire, despite its prominence in student surveys, yuppie culture and self-help books. "A Fool and His Money" thus should be a hot commodity. Amateur investors deluged by numbers in self-help books, discouraged by tax season or demoralized by the volatile stock market will find an effective antidote in John Rothchild's dose of levity.

Chronicling the fate of $16,500 he invests at the beginning of this book, Rothchild pokes fun at everything from the language of modern money culture ("What used to be known as acquaintances, relatives, children, husbands, and wives have all become investments) to its mystifying rules ("be patient, be nervous; be flexible, be steadfast; never sell too soon; it's never too soon to sell").

Yet, while effective in the small portions Rothchild dishes out to readers of his liberal magazine pieces, this humor isn't enough to sustain a book. The only theme that does tie this work together (the average investor shouldn't even try to make sense of the Street, Rothchild concludes) might alienate the very reader the book is trying to attract. "A Fool and His Money" would have been stronger if Rothchild had stopped being facetious long enough to hand down some practical tips (he tries to appear ignorant throughout his financial odyssey, but he lets slip the fact that he's long covered the business world as a journalist).

This book also might have profited if Rothchild had expanded an entertaining glimpse at past self-help books on investing (The author of "How to Lay a Nest Egg," a '50s book for women investors, asks, "Is the stock market like a supermarket?). If you don't plan to invest, however, or have invested and regret it, there's a kind of solace to be found in Rothchild's bent humor: "If money makes people hate their children and lead miserable lives, then any of the numerous losses I've described could only have brought me closer to spiritual perfection and ultimate enlightenment."

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