dampscribbler: (money for nothing)
My first glimpse of what author Edward Ugel calls “The Dark Side of Lottery Millions” came in the summer between my junior and senior years of college. I was living at home with my parents in Illinois, working a temp job for a blue-chip corporation and buying a weekly lottery ticket, dreaming of “winning big” so I could replace my falling-apart car, pay my own tuition instead of skiving off my parents, live in a real house instead of a sub-code rental shared with 6 other students. It never occurred to me to quit school if I won. The point of winning the lottery was to make life easier, not change it completely.

Toward the end of the summer, I came across an article in the Chicago Tribune profiling the winner of the Illinois Lottery’s first jackpot, a sort of “where is she now” article. It was appalling. Once a year for the past decade, the winner had received a check for fifty thousand dollars. She had won a $1million jackpot ten years before, to be paid annually for 20 years. Halfway through her annuity, she had developed a habit of spending large as soon as her check came until it was gone, usually in 6 months or less. She then spent the rest of the year begging and borrowing from friends, relatives, and lenders. The reporter asked her what she would do when her last check came. Her answer so floored me that now, twenty years later, I remember it word for word: “I’m going to cry and cry and cry.”

“Money for Nothing: One Man’s Journey Through the Dark Side of Lottery Millions” is a roller-coaster ride through author Edward Ugel’s experience in an industry that blossomed in the 1990’s as a result of lottery winners behaving in just such ways. Ugel’s job was to buy the winners’ payments, or remaining payments, for a fraction of their face value. This allowed the winners an opportunity to pay off debts accumulated as a result of, in most cases, bad decision making and willful over-accumulation of stuff – houses, cars, boats; maybe even a sorry couple of horses. The money came from investors, who would presumably collect the annual payments over time, thus earning a return on the cash they provided. In between was The Firm, the company (well, the fictionalized name of the company) that Ugel spent nearly a decade working for, and the crew within who provided the means to close the deal. And the deals were such that The Firm, and the folks in it, made a lot of money buying off lottery winners.

Ugel ambitiously weaves in and out of, essentially, three stories – the story of The Firm and his relationship with it, the story, or rather stories, of many of the desperate lottery winners he met, and his own more personal story of dealing with unemployment, compulsive gambling, and, when he closed a deal, coming into big money almost as easily as the lottery winner did, and managing that money just as badly. The writing is uneven, dragging at times, but where Ugel succeeds he really soars. The shower scene in an Atlantic City hotel in the last chapter is not to be missed, seriously. His profiles of the lottery winners are the most entertaining parts of the book, though he admits that names, locations, and basically all facts about the winners have been changed to protect their privacy. He dedicates Chapter 2 to the history of lotteries as far back as the Old Testament, and the role of lotteries in the development of the United States. Chapter 3 just might be the most important chapter in the book for anyone who wins the lottery or thinks they will. He calls it “Everything You’ll Wish You Never Knew About Winning The Lottery,” which is pretty much dead opposite of how I felt about this chapter. And it’s worth mentioning that beneath the chapter title he quotes one of the lottery winners he met as saying “I wouldn’t wish winning the lottery on Hitler.”

Think about that a minute.

Ugel compares himself and his co-workers at The Firm to the lottery winners, drawing parallels between personality traits and life habits. No one comes out looking good, but no one is a monster or moron, either. True that I don’t think there was a single person in this book I’d like to spend an evening at a bar with (and many evenings are spent at bars), but Ugel touches on the humanity in each person in a way that makes it easy to understand how he could be so good at his job for so long. I highly recommend “Money For Nothing” to anyone who has ever dreamed of “hitting it big.”

*Note: This review is sponsored by Mother Talk. I received a free review copy, which I wrote in quite a lot, and a $20 Amazon.com certificate, which, as far as I know, I cannot use to buy lottery tickets.
dampscribbler: (books)
Madeleine L'Engle, 88, has died.

Madeleine L’Engle, who in writing more than 60 books, including childhood fables, religious meditations and science fiction, weaved emotional tapestries transcending genre and generation, died Thursday in Connecticut. She was 88.

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