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May 4th, 2011 AARON MESH | Books
 

Paul Allen Idea Man

You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.

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Though the title of Paul Allen’s memoir is patently an attempt to define himself as a big-picture guy against Bill Gates’ myopic wonk, it is also a misnomer: Allen is not a man of ideas, but a man of interests. The Microsoft co-creator and Portland Trail Blazers owner is a serial enthusiast, his imagination tickled by any contraption with a futuristic gleam. In the early pages of Idea Man (Portfolio, 368 pages, $27.95), a 9-year-old Allen visits the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, and is smitten by a “transparent, spherical elevator” called the Bubbleator. “I loved the Bubbleator,” he recalls, “just the idea of the Bubbleator.” This sets a pattern, and it is Allen’s very good luck that the preoccupation he shares with Gates—the coding of a BASIC language for an Altair microprocessor—firepowers the PC revolution and perpetually funds all his other crazes. After opening with a burst of sleepless innovation, Idea Man becomes a gee-whiz enumeration of hobbies: basketball, commercial space travel, submarines, extraterrestrial intelligence, artificial intelligence, safaris. The portrait of the billionaire that emerges is fairly adorable: It is easy to imagine him as an overgrown teenager with Carl Sagan, Jacques Cousteau and Jimi Hendrix posters still adorning the walls of his Mercer Island mansion.

Portlanders are most likely to be interested in the chapter on the Trail Blazers—its main revelation is that Clyde Drexler regularly called Allen’s home number in the wee hours to gripe about his contract, though there’s also an ominous quote from former owner Larry Weinberg: “The losing starts to tear your guts out.” (Speaking of which, there’s a brief but fun discursion into the Jail Blazers era that includes a team investigator calling Allen to report player Qyntel Woods hosting dogfighting events at his home, resulting in “a room in his house where we hear the walls are covered in blood.”) Curious readers will also learn of Gates’ more wearyingly aggressive traits, including tirades about “the fucking stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” checking the Microsoft parking lot to see which employees showed up on weekends, and trying to move a jetway to catch a taxiing plane.   

You know who there are no such embarrassing stories about? Paul Allen. His memoir is a companionable read, but it is never remotely candid. An invitation to one of his lavish boat parties famously comes with a non-disclosure agreement, and the book often reads as if Allen himself signed one. He conspicuously skirts any mention of his notoriety as an unlikely ladies’ man, and barely references Vulcan Inc., his fearsome holding company. Money is a mysterious hole in Idea Man. Perhaps because he wants to look like he doesn’t care about corporate earnings, and perhaps because he actually doesn’t care about corporate earnings, he breezes past the part of the Microsoft story where the cash comes pouring in, and that elision gives his reminiscences an imbalanced structure: When I was 16 years old, I loved Hendrix, and then when I was 47, I had Frank Gehry design a museum in Hendrix’s honor. It’s hard to say which is the funnier offhand reference on page 261—first mentioning his multiple yachts by noting that each one carries a recording studio, or first mentioning U2 with an anecdote that begins, “Later in the evening, I asked Bono for help.” The  autobiography of the man who was once the world’s second richest concludes on a poignant paradox: The most regular-guy thing about Paul Allen is how badly he wants to be seen as a regular guy.


READ IT: Idea Man is in bookstores now.

 
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