Thursday, January 20, 2005

A Mediocre Book Review For A Mediocre Book, That Nobody Reading This Has Probably Read, And Rightfully So



It’s easy to see the attraction Conmen have on the American public. There is something undeniably alluring about men that rely on their wits and charisma to purloin money from people that didn’t deserve their giant bankrolls in the first place. When the nation turns on it’s television to see how a drug addict murdered the corner grocer for a spare change or a young man with a history of mental illness beat his a Grandmother to death with a tire iron before raping her lifeless carcass, to pine for the relative innocent of the con man is natural, even inevitable; and who among us wouldn’t want to live a dishonest, yet oddly honorable life of splendor and excitement? Yes, the Grifter often fancies himself a card carrying member of an honorable vocation, & an often repeated maxim in their line of work is ‘You can’t cheat an honest man’. Of course, that’s bullshit. It benefits you to steal from criminals the Greedy who do not have the benefit of being able to cry foul and go running to the police, but it is by no means the only thievery that takes place. Lowlife swindlers run real estate scams and will happily bilk the nice old Couple down the street out of their eating money, morally inferior slime will dupe people into giving up their credit card numbers via internet chicanery, the stupid are preyed on from all directions, and all in all, honest hard working people get bilked with far more regularity then greedy mustached Texas Millionaires who were just aching for it.

I remember when I got conned by a Carney. I was at my Aunt’s house on the mainland, as us Hawaiians called the great landmass that incorporates the majority of northern America, when I attended my first County Fair without adult supervision. Yours truly was a wet behind the ears innocent shitheel that didn’t know his cock from a curtain rod and I had some money burning a hole in the pocket of my shortpants. I walked, wide eyed down the midway, looking at girls I was too horrified to talk to and checking out the various games, seeking one that seemed inviting enough for me to try my luck at. A bored looking Carney half assed invited to a free throw at a game consisting of throwing a softball into a wicker basket. All I had to do was sink it without it bouncing out. Sold. He had me at free, I grasped the dirty softball, gently arced it into the resilient basket, and despite a slight bounce, it landed, and ricocheted around the inside without bouncing out. I won. Had I played for money, I would have won a prize, and furthermore I was far too athletically inept and mentally deficient to have ever won anything previously. For the first time in my life, I could taste my victory, and I wanted it. It was only a dollar a ball, and shit, for all intents and purposes, I had won once already. I paid the man a dollar, noticing how large his stack of bills he kept deep in his filthy apron was, and tried my luck. I threw the same perfect arc I had thrown before, and the ball bounced off the bottom and landed on the grass floor of his flashy booth. I was close, but not very. I tried twice more, at a dollar a throw, and kept failing. I decided to cut my losses. My adolescent mind rationalized it thusly: it may have been a lucky throw the first time, I must have distracted by the toothless drunken coot operating the game in addition to the live green folding money at stake, it all threw off my aim.

It wasn’t until later I realized that the dirty son of a bitch had switched balls on a ten year old, dooming him to failure. He happily took my money, probably to secure crack and/or prostitutes. I hope you enjoyed my three dollars, you bastard. Fuck you.

You’d think a book written by the same type of unethical scumbag that would not only willingly make a living by fucking ten year old kids out of their allowance, but do so with malicious glee, too say nothing of the routine outsmarting of rural shitkickers for a big portion of their government subsidy checks, would be a lot more interesting. Problem is, humorist Peter Fenton’s memoirs of a Teenage Carney, ‘Eyeing The Flash’ doesn’t go anywhere. The packaging was misleading, with no description on the back of the dust jacket, just a portion of prose describing the excitement of separate people from their money via the Carnival. It wasn’t written by some Carney that they had dug out of a free clinic after a ten year bout with the DT’s as I had hoped, or by some enterprising reporter who risked his personal sanity and a whole host of diseases by going on the road on a troop of Carnival folk. Nope, Peter Fenton is an already published humor writer and who forgot to be funny in his latest book. The 'true story' follows Peter, a scrawny former football player and adolescent math, as he manages to make the acquaintance of his vastly more interesting friend, Jackie. Jackie’s an offspring of generations of dubious Carney breeding that results in a natural born scam artist. The kid didn't have a chance, his Mom’s a monster, his brother’s an idiot, his Dad’s a dickhead, and Jackie’s pulling down thousands a week (in 1960’s money), before he is legally old enough to stick his dick in something over eighteen. As you can well imagine, Jackie isn’t the most trustworthy guy around, so Peter’s trepidation at throwing his lot in with Jackie is totally justified. But Peter isn’t especially trustworthy either, and the reader has no reason to suspect any experience he relates - which often sound like a mundane imagination trying to craft an interesting read than verbiage relating a true experience - as being God's honest truth. Peter’s homelife is no picnic (and whose is?) Dad is a pathetic drunk, his Mom’s a delusional nitwi, and he scrams from the homestead and becomes a Carney, gradually working his way up to the glamorous position of flat store operator under his friend's tutelage. However, this is only for a summer, before our Narrator goes on to college and a successful career working for a second rate tabloid paper.

Therein lies part of the problem: Fenton daintily dipped his big toe in sleaze, before going back to his comfy squarejohn life. There is an aspect of condescension to the book, that our high school age narrator who willingly went down this road is somehow better then the other scam artists. As for said other scam artists, what could be a great, colorful supporting batch of characters is, well mostly, kind of bland. We get a glimpse of it all, from the sad, untouchable drunk losers known as ‘Ride Boys’ to the successful hot shit well heeled Flat Store operators. But what could have been a fascinating rogue’s gallery features people that are not notable or fucked up, or interesting enough to be very memorable. The narrator isn’t especially appealing either, never going into the real mechanics or psychological aspect of being a professional lowlife. He's just in for his summer vacation before working for a shitty paper and putting out so-so books I regreat spending money that I could have used for buying beer on.

You want to read up on Carney culture? Hang on to your hat and dive into William Lindsay Greshem’s ‘Nightmare Alley’, which isn’t so much of a book as a solid punch to the solar plexus. Want to read about Con Men? Go with ‘The Yellow Kid’, Joe Weil instead. His book is back in print. You want a mediocre, sporadically amusing, reasonably entertaining book that is nothing to write home about? Go with ‘Eyeing The Flash’. But why would you want to go and do that?

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