The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

God’s Ponzi

By Robert Buschel Book Reviews

In God’s Ponzi, Robert Buschel builds on his storytelling skills and knowledge of law and technology to provide readers with an engaging legal drama. Buschel tells the story through the protagonist, Greg Portnoy. Driven by loyalty and revenge, Greg spins a complex web of criminal activity. He believes he is “committing these crimes for the right reasons,” and “the world will be in a better place” when he is done.

From the start, Buschel sets the stage for increasingly far-fetched plots and schemes. Greg begins his story with his lifelong friend, Joseph Lars Legee. While in high school, they hacked into the bank’s computer to recover the money his father lost through a Ponzi scheme. Greg assumes the role of protector and avenger, a role he continues to play throughout the story and that drives him to lead a group of friends into a dangerous and global Ponzi scheme. Greg recognizes his need to feel important, beat others, protect people under his protection, and his nasty, vengeful streak. He also acknowledges his “ethical structure breakdown.” Joseph wants to leave the world in a better place by using computers for the benefit of society, while Greg believes he will leave the world in a better place through revenge.

While at MIT, Greg and a group of friends, the “team,” develop a successful video game. Eager to re-invest the money, Greg looks for new opportunities. His quest to make more money leads to his first Ponzi scheme investing money for a group of Harvard students using a computer. When they demand payment of their investment and all profits, Greg’s plan ends in a near disaster. Greg does not have the funds, but he devises another scheme as a way out. After MIT, Greg decides he will become a lawyer because he believes it will “serve the team” and is “essential” in pursuing a successful Ponzi scheme.

At one point, Greg coordinates the team’s efforts to successfully rescue Joseph from a legal dilemma. Joseph then falls into deeper trouble, but it is too late for Greg to come to his rescue — Joseph is dead. The team reunites to avenge Joseph’s death. The team engages in an elaborate Ponzi scheme spanning the globe, under the direction of Greg and the guidance of “JLL,” the AI developed by Joseph. Before he died, Joseph uploaded his personality into the AI, named “JLL,” making the AI appear almost sentient. Although dead, Joseph remains in the story through his pre-programmed text messages and Greg’s conversations with JLL.

The story is entertaining and thought-provoking. How far-fetched is the AI developed by Joseph? Where was technology five years ago and where will it be in five years?

From beginning to end, the protagonist invokes a spectrum of emotions, ranging from sympathy to anger and disgust. Buschel’s novel reveals human frailty and the danger of pushing the boundaries to the point of falling down a slippery slope. Buschel pulls the reader into the web, making it hard to close the book.

Cathy Lively is a member of The Florida Bar.