Business Nonfiction Reviews

The Smartest Guys In The Room – Bethany McLean and Peter Elkend (Audible Review)

27 March 2021
The Smartest Guys in the Room Book Cover The Smartest Guys in the Room
Bethany McLean, Peter Elkind,
Biography & Autobiography
Portfolio Trade

An account of the rise and fall of Enron, written by award-winning Fortune investigative reporters, draws on a wide range of sources while revealing the contributions of lesser-known participants in the scandal. Reprint.

I usually do not review non-fiction if I can avoid it. Life is tough, and I prefer a writer to take me somewhere I cannot imagine in my daily life.

I am making an exception with the review today. I live in Texas, and as I write this, my state is still struggling after a terrible storm to repair the energy infrastructure it has. Additionally, we just had some amazing things happen because of Reddit, Gamestop, and Robin Hood. Today we review a book that is similar to both events but also a history lesson.

Thus, I went to a book that is non-fiction, but the story is impressive for its historical impact and the fact that it is true. Today I review “The Smartest Guys in the Room” by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkend.

Enron was more than just a failed business that had an overwhelming ego. It represented a culture of this elitism and a sense that if someone were smart enough and rich enough, someone can do anything they want and to hell with the consequences. As we are going through this world, there are still people who feel they are more intelligent than everyone, or more elite than everyone, or obsessed with things that other classes may not consider. This book peals back layers of how people can form such opinions and what they do when they all gather together in a business.

Now for our review! Let me start with the critiques first. To start, there are pacing issues, and like most non-fiction, there are tension issues too. Oh yes, a non-fiction book can have tension and pacing. The story is laid out well, but it needed tweaking in parts. The richness of the story and the audacity of the figures that made up Enron are lively by themselves, but they are paired with Wallstreet and spreadsheet terms. Their behaviors and stories, scandals and blunders, occasionally get lost in the numbers and dry mathematical jargon. These bits damage pacing because of the nature of what they are, as someone may not understand the basics of the concept if they do not know how to read a spreadsheet or balance a checkbook. That said, it was written for them.

Nevertheless, for those of us who are not fully vested in the balance sheet and Wallstreet jargon, it is not a bad idea to read books like these. When coming upon a dry part, remember to write the terms out to Google later and let the words flow. It is worth it. There is a wealth of knowledge in this book, and it is good to learn this stuff.

Second, it is a narration issue. There are parts of the novel where it sounds as though the narrator, Dennis Boutsikaris, was reading so fast, he skipped pieces, only to come back and re-record those bits. It can be jarring when this happens. Some of the chapters are hour-long, so as ears become accustomed to the cadence of Dennis Boutsikaris’s gorgeous voice, then move a skip in a different version of it that was recorded later, only to return to the first. Dennis Boutsikaris has a golden voice, and the skips are a shame, especially when it is often enough to notice and criticize it. Nevertheless, to have that broken up now and again with a different tone or vocal pattern can be surprising, and thus, why I am noting it.

With that said, we go to the positives about “The Smartest Guys in the Room.” Bethany McLean and Peter Elkend both put a lot of passion, care, and deeply rooted emotion into this story. A plate of cookies made by one’s grandmother would not have nearly as much care put into them as the cautionary tale. For a story about math and numbers, aside from the parts I mentioned above, this is a compelling story. It has a story arc structure, laid out as if the reader is reading a modern fairy tale set in the positive change arch of fiction. However, that is not what this is. It is a real story, with real people there, yet the tale is laid out well to remember and understand. It takes work to make such a thing into a compelling tale. There is intrigue, mystery, arrogance, and even well-lined-up character studies, and all in non-fiction. “The Smartest Guys in the Room” is non-fiction that reads like a thriller with comedic notes and so much tragedy. This is not your CPA’s dry and dull non-fiction.

For my next positive review point, I loved the word choice used for the story. Despite the title, this story is not written like an elitist’s thesaurus to confuse people’s minds with barely used words. Yes, there exist piles of math in these words, as I mentioned before. However, the words used in this story are simple to understand and convey what is going on. For example, take the significant subplot of Andy Fastow and how he acted. There were loads of words that could have been used to describe his complicated deals, things that would have been on a higher level. However, the writers tell this story plainly and well, and anyone can follow along (again, aside from the specifically dry parts for mathematical reasons).

Lastly, this is a beautiful story to get lost in with the golden voice of Dennis Boutsikaris. I need more audio-books by this man read to me. Heck, he could read a phone book, and my ears would be delighted by the way he says the numbers and words. He has a smooth tone to his voice. It is energetic and adds tension and comedy when needed. Aside from the re-records, he has a smooth tone the entire time. I never felt sleepy, and this book is very long, so I would highly recommend this on a long car trip as you drive. He would keep you awake, and he adds so much emotion to the story’s characters and life.

So with all of that in mind and my scoring system, I am giving “The Smartest Guys in the Room” by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkend an 87%, which is a 4-star review. I again recommend this story. I do not typically add my personal feelings on stories, but this one needs it right now. I think people should read this or listen to this story again. There is far too much in the political climate and world going on that, to me, mirrors this time of our lives. We cannot go forward without learning our history, and Enron represents a history that America needs to remember again.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley

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