12/22/2008 12:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bernard Madoff and Anton Chigurh: the Con Man as Serial Killer

The catastrophe of losing your life savings and the daily struggle to go on afterward is almost never material for literature or movies. The big con con is a narrative thing of beauty in the right hands, but the curtain usually falls before we view the consequences.

The damage to the hundreds, if not thousands, of lives Bernard Madoff devastated with his admitted "giant Ponzi scheme"is emerging in news stories. How those who were cheated will recover (or not) could make an even more interesting tale. Not being savvy enough about Wall St. book-keeping to know the tricks the money manager must have used to hide his losses, I have to rely on fictional analogies to comprehend a $50 billion caper.

The network of wealthy investors he schmoozed and bilked, many of them conservative (if a promise of a steady 10-12% annual return can be called that) and many of them Jewish, calls out for a novelist's treatment. Only an expert social observer and a "big book" author could render the tragi-comedic elements in its many dimensions: the tinny patter of American business-speak, the cynical manipulator who allows only the "elite" the privilege of being bamboozled by him, the sweetly gullable retirees in Florida, and the many worthy charities and non-profits that are chagrined and have been made destitute.

This was not a local two-bit Mamet-style scam but one of colossal ambition and scope, a job for Norman Mailer or William Gaddis, both of whom, rest their souls, should be living at this hour.

Augustus Melmotte, the swindler in Trollope's The Way We Live Now, is always a handy figure to invoke whenever another titanic Wall St. moutebank is brought low. A supposed railroad baron with no intention of building the railroad in which his gulls have sunk their fortunes, Melmotte is denounced as a fake in a local newspaper but nonetheless gets himself elected to Parliament.

Trollope harbors considerable sympathy for his villain. Melmotte's drive to succeed in a London society that looks down on him as a foreigner gives him a certain nobility compared to the other petty strivers in the novel. One of the characters says of Melmotte, "he is what he is because he has been a swindler greater than other swindlers." As Madoff appears to have pulled off the biggest scam in financial history, he shares at least this super-lative quality with Trollope's colorful flim-flam man.

Tommy Wilhelm, the anti-hero in Saul Bellow's Seize the Day, is another edifying example. A puppet rather than a puppet-master, he is the investor as chump. To the realist tradition of Balzac and Dostoevsky, novelists unafraid to portray the natural desire for money and the humiliation of not having any, Bellow added the voice of the American immigrant.

Wilhelm is hungry to buy into the myth of Wall St. success and the limitless freedom it brings. Talk of "easy money," rhetoric still heard around the clock on informercials, is irresistable. He's an easy mark. Many of Madoff's clients, portfolio managers trained to diversify and recognize when something is too good to be true, seem to have been just as trusting.

In neither of these fictions, though, do the victims of the cons receive their due. Melmotte's are mostly faceless. Wilhelm mainly damages himself. The risks of investing may be spelled out in prospectuses ("your returns may vary") but the risks of being fleeced of your life savings by a professional are not.

Reading about those who have been wiped out by Madoff and those who were spared, I was reminded most acutely of the assassin Anton Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy's philosophic thriller, No Country for Old Men. A symbol of the terrifying randomness that in the author's view governs the universe, Chigurh in one scene decides if a man will live or die on the flip of a coin. To meet him is to chance a quick and violent end.

It may sound hyperbolic to link Madoff with a serial killer. But in their relative swathes of destruction, Chirugh was just a local hit man. ("Some will rob you with a six-gun/Some with a fountain pen,"go the words to Woody Guthrie's ballad "Pretty Boy Floyd.") Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, would probably have no trouble with the analogy. He told the "Wall St. Journal" that hearing about Madoff's alleged crimes was "like finding out your brother is a murderer."

Barbara S. Fox, president of the Fox Residential Group, is one who felt the wings of death from Madoff brush her cheek. She begged him to take her money; it didn't vanish only because, for unknown reasons, he turned her down. (This seems to have essential to his poisonous charm; only a select few had access to his financial acumen.)

Like Chigurh, he had the profound ability to alter the fate of lives by the simplest of means. Those he met and wished to ruin, he could allow to invest with him. On the other side of the coin, those he chose to pardon he turned away. It was a curse of intoxicating power, the Midas touch, except in reverse.

How has Madoff coped over the last five months as he watched the financial markets collapse? Carrying a time bomb in your jacket pocket every day can be fatal for you and everyone in your vicinity. Like Tolstoy's Ivan Illyich, a character who felt suddenly liberated when he knew he was dying, the promoter of a crumbling Ponzi scheme is both trapped in his own web of lies and yet free from convention. The last, desperate stages of the unraveling may have given him a new kind of strength or even peace.
(In the recent photos of "the most hated man in New York" walking the streets in his baseball cap, he looks amused and relieved.) Although he knew he was doomed, the investment company he ran was still a force. Anyone unlucky enough to be enticed was toast.

I can imagine Madoff walking around his country clubs in Palm Beach and Long Island, deciding -- perhaps only as a mental game -- which of his friends he would allow to live, financially speaking, and which would accompany him to Hell.

Did he pay out to a select few in November and, if so, how did he choose them? Or was he beyond caring and still reeling people in with empty (and deadly) promises?

Ms. Fox claimed in The New York Times that he was "protective" by refusing her money. It's just as likely he lowered and opened the gate on a strictly cash basis, allowing those to enter who had amounts large enough to keep the scheme afloat while barring minor players who might be more trouble than they were worth. It's also possible he did some belated ethical calculations, figuring which of his clients could afford to lose $10 million and which would never recover if they lost a tenth of that.

Until the current financial collapse forced him to realise he could never recoup his losses, Madoff may have deluded himself that the scheme could pay for itself. Most con men believe they will never be caught. But as the illusion of steady returns is afiction he seems to have maintained for years, if not decades, it's hard to believe he didn't realize for a long time that, behind the smiles and the charitable contributions, Bernie Madoff was a very dangerous man to know.

Richard B. Woodward is an arts critic in New York.