A Review Of Nick Bilton's "American Kingpin"
Can I make a confession?
Seriously, can I come clean about something?
For all of the reading I do, I don't think that I've ever, honest-to-God, read an entire book from the very first page all the way through the very last.
I read non-fiction, so by page 200 I usually get the idea and can move on with my life. I skip around. I quit boring books. I just never quite finish stuff. Sue me.
But that all changed this weekend.
I picked up Nick Bilton's American Kingpin and quite literally could not put it down.
Check out my Kindle stats:
The data don't lie.
Okay, so what's the book about?
The book is the true story behind The Silk Road -- you know, that website on the "Dark Web" where you used to be able to buy any drug imaginable? Oh, and not just drugs. You could buy weapons, hitmen, cyanide, human organs...
As you can imagine, the backstory of how the site came to be is nutty: an idealistic 20-something builds the site as the ultimate expression of his libertarian values and sets out to unseat what he believes is a cruel, unjust government (the U.S. government).
He doesn't fully grasp what he's signing up for until the site starts to take off, at which point he turns into a Walter White-type character who relishes the challenge of leading a dual life and secretly building a billion-dollar drug empire.
The story really does read as a real-life Breaking Bad, with its protagonist starting off as a nobody and then sliding deeper and deeper into "evil" territory as his power and wealth grow.
Indeed, Ross Ulbricht started to hack on his Dark Web drug marketplace idea while running his friend's bookstore... it was a little side hustle of sorts.
But before long, the site takes off and it starts to occupy more and more of his time.
He eventually goes full-time on it, and not long after starts to face ethical forks in the road like this:
"Question for you," one of his employees had asked at the time. "Do we allow selling kidneys and livers?"
Would you like to guess his answer?
In true Breaking Bad fashion, the Silk Road founder carries on a normal-ish existence to the outside world for most of the story.
He lives in San Francisco with some roommates, goes camping on the weekends, works from coffee shops, and generally lives a life indistinguishable from a solo startup founder in SF (which I guess he technically was...).
Indeed, the leader of one of the largest drug empires in history was indistinguishable from an SF "tech bro."
After breakfast each morning, while René and Selena sauntered off to work, their new roommate, Ross, would wave good-bye and wander town the street to a nearby coffee shop to oversee his drug empire.
But before long, every three-letter agency in the government starts to hunt the person or people running The Silk Road.
They hit nothing but dead ends for roughly two years, until a semi-rogue DEA agent befriends "Dread Pirate Roberts" (Ulbricht's online persona), chatting and emailing him frequently, weaving a fabricated backstory about being an experienced large-scale drug smuggler.
Ulbricht hires the cop to carry out a hit on a former Silk Road employee, which he "does," successfully convincing Ulbricht that he's loyal and reliable.
But then the cop crosses an unimaginable ethical line and... well... you know what, sorry. You're just going to have to read this thing if you want to know.
This story -- which is true -- rivals some of the best crime novels. There are dirty cops. Hitmen. Drug dealers. And almost as many ethical gray areas as there are characters.
But as compelling as the story is, the storytelling is worth its own mention. The details that that the author chose to include are brilliant.
Anyway, if you're into these sorts of nonfiction narrative stories, here's the link: American Kingpin.
And if you're not in the market for a page-turner, at least add the Silk Road founder on Linkedin.
But don't be surprised if it takes a little while to get a response...he's in prison for the rest of his life.
P.S. This is an excerpt from an email that was sent to the Stew’s Letter list.