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Con-Men

Fakers

by Paul Maliszewski
New Press, 2009

According to filmmaker Werner Herzog, people in the twenty-first century face an “onslaught on reality” comparable to medieval knights confronting foes with guns and cannons for the first time. Pointing to mislabeled reality television, computer generated imagery in films, virtual reality and Wrestlemania – those actually-occurring events consisting of scripted, choreographed activity enacted by people with entirely unnatural physiques – he sees no direct and easy route to the truth. A maker of documentary films concerned about this problem might insist on a firm commitment to the facts in the pursuit of verifiable truth.

 
That is not Herzog’s method. He distinguishes between “fact” and “truth,” believing he should not strictly adhere to the former and instead penetrate deeply into the latter. In Herzog on Herzog, a collection of interviews edited by Paul Cronin, the director says his “documentaries” – he puts the word in quotation marks – show that “there is a much more profound level of truth than everyday reality.” For Herzog, making such films means doing more than presenting a straightforward factual chronicle.

Sometimes getting to the truth demands invention. In Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog shows a German-born, Vietnam-era U.S. Navy pilot, repeatedly opening and closing the door to his home. Dieter Dengler did not actually develop this tic. Herzog devised the ritual for him, believing it visually expressed the former prisoner of war’s appreciation of his formerly-denied freedom. Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog’s 2008 documentary about Antarctica, contains several examples of his bid for something of greater significance than banal images of snow and ice. He interviews scientists studying seals and includes the sound of the marine mammals’ distinctive calls. He stages a scene in which a trio of investigators prostate themselves on the ice to listen, something Herzog, in person but not on screen, readily admits they would not normally do. Speaking in New York City a year before the film’s release, he conceded that there is nothing inherently compelling about a man holding a frozen fish. However, he presents the discovery of one in a man-made tunnel under the South Pole and crafts a scenario to make it meaningful. He imagines archeologists from the future trying to surmise what human beings were trying to do when they constructed their subterranean shrine to a sturgeon.

Herzog, who believes filmmakers should know how to pick locks and forge documents, repurposed actual events in science-fiction scenarios several times before making Encounters. In Lessons of Darkness, he imagines aliens trying to comprehend the destruction of human civilization, which he sees in the flaming Kuwaiti oil fields after the Gulf War of the early 1990s. In The Wild Blue Yonder, he combines footage shot in outer space and under the Antarctic Ocean with still more scientists speaking and an actor portraying yet another alien.

Paul Maliszewski doesn’t write about Herzog in Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders, but what he says about others suggests he wouldn’t be pleased with Herzog’s pursuit of an “ecstatic truth.” Indeed, he favors what Herzog contemptuously dismisses as the “accountant’s truth,” the literal-minded, unbending commitment to definite facts, which in Maliszewski’s case could be renamed the earnest journalist’s truth.

Maliszewski concentrates on writers of purported nonfiction, including such exposed fabricators as Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, James Frey and “JT LeRoy.” He concludes his survey of deceptive scribes with an essay about novelist Michael Chabon, who disappoints Maliszewski with an autobiographical lecture that strays from the checkable facts. Writing in Bookforum, where the essay on Chabon first appeared, Hua Hsu says the piece perfectly ends Fakers because Maliszewski’s doubts about Chabon’s talk did not emerge from cynicism or skepticism but from a conviction that real life stories do not need artificial intensification. Maliszewski’s investigation of Chabon does encapsulate his certainty about a discernable separation between the real and the fake, as if the dilemma concealed at the core of the hoaxes he finds so fascinating were easily resolvable. For him, the “onslaught on reality” Herzog identified can be dealt with, not through artifice, but with careful fact-checking. Everyday reality is sufficiently profound for Maliszewski.

Having previously written about writer-hoaxers, and done some falsifying himself, Maliszewski intends to reveal Chabon as an unreliable narrator of his own life story. He twice heard Chabon give a talk entitled “Golems I Have Known, or, Why My Eldest Son’s Middle Name Is Napoleon,” in which Chabon describes his evolving identity as a writer and a Jew. Chabon recalls growing up near the author of Strangely Enough!, a collection of fantastic tales. Chabon tells his audience that he eventually mustered the courage to introduce himself to his esteemed neighbor, who dismissed that pseudonymous work and announced that he was actually a Holocaust survivor writing a memoir to be called The Book of Hell. Chabon says the slippery character turned out to have had still another identity, that of a Nazi who lifted a Jewish man’s identity after the war, married a Jewish woman (who provided him with the bogus numbers tattooed on his arm), and concocted an account of life in concentration camps.

Michael Chabon

 
Wondering why he did not remember The Book of Hell or the scandal Chabon said followed its author’s unmasking, Maliszewski looked into the matter and determined that “Chabon had fabricated a Holocaust fraud.” He says a quick Internet search satisfied him that the book Chabon named did not exist. He goes to hear Chabon give the talk again in order to watch a “magic trick disguised as memoir” and receive a “lesson in the art of audience manipulation.” Chabon, both in his lecture and in subsequent conversation about it with Maliszewski, identifies himself as a teller of lies and told an easily disprovable one in “Golems I Have Known.”

Maliszewski sternly disapproves. He contends that Chabon does a disservice to fiction by inserting some of it into his personal history. In an addendum to the essay (a defensive response to critics of the original piece), he reiterates his view that Chabon either resorted to an unnecessary cheap trick or conducted a “failed experiment” resulting in “bad art.”

Choosing an inapt example to make his point, Maliszewski contrasts Chabon with Philip Roth, who in Nathan Zuckerman developed a character with a biography similar to Roth’s own in order to “understand how experience mixed with imagination to create art.” Maliszewski does not object to Roth’s blend of fiction and nonfiction, including his use of the Holocaust for a “moral beard” to hide behind, because The Ghost Writer, the first of several Zuckerman books, is clearly identified as a novel. He ignores Roth’s playful disregard for genre integrity in other works. Roth opens The Facts with a letter to Zuckerman and ends it with a response from what Maliszewski calls Roth’s “fictional alter ego.” (When will writers finally stop using that tired tag for Zuckerman?) In a remark Herzog might endorse, the character tells his creator that he can be “much more truthful” writing fiction than autobiography, which is what The Facts is labeled as being. Another novel, Operation Shylock, includes both a “Philip Roth” and a Philip Roth imposter.

In Maliszewski’s forgiving assessment, Chabon might not live up to the standard Roth followed (with The Ghost Writer at least), but he does not belong on the wall of shame with other embarrassed fakers and counterfeiters. Maliszewski obviously shares Chabon’s awareness of a “long-standing connection between the idea of the con and the confidence man and the storyteller and the writer.” In Fakers, Maliszewski relays the acts of Stephen Glass, who concocted stories for The New Republic; Jayson Blair, who pretended to report for The New York Times; James Frey, who exaggerated his experience of drug addition and recovery in a memoir; and Laura Albert, who invented JT LeRoy, a former male child prostitute turned writer (who found an endorser in Chabon). Albert enlisted the half-sister of a boyfriend to play the role of LeRoy in public appearances.

Maliszewski also describes such classic historical hoaxes as the New York Sun’s nineteenth-century report of life discovered on the moon, Clifford Irving’s phony Autobiography of Howard Hughes, and a pair of poets who aimed to mock modernist poetry by producing nonsense work that, instead registering as devastating parody, ended up hailed as the next new literary thing. He interviews a painter who depicts a war that never happened (which does not really qualify as a hoax). He also writes of another “artist” who creates fake businesses equipped with elaborate websites and odd gimmicks, such as cemeteries modeled on theme parks, and bemusedly observes the press coverage that foolishly follows.

Maliszewski has special interest in that last area; he claims to have invented unreal businessmen and imaginary businesses when working as a journalist for the Business Journal of Central New York. Since Maliszewski confesses his background as a liar, I’ll make my own modest disclosure. I do not have a résumé of writerly deception as long or distinguished as either Maliszewski or Chabon. It does not extend much beyond replying, “P.T. Barnum’s autobiography,” once when asked what book most influenced me. At the time I had not read it. Indeed, then I did not even know whether Barnum had written an autobiography. This might leave me open to the accusation Maliszewski flings at Chabon. By casually taking liberties with the truth, did I, too, assume that reality is insufficient, “too pale and thin” and in need of improvement? Did I lack confidence that the true answer (Evel Knievel’s autobiography) was inferior to the fabrication? I readily acknowledge that it was a silly crack, and in retrospect a too obvious one. But as far as lies go, mine can’t be considered very serious. Regardless, Maliszewski offers me another, loftier defense: a literary justification. He accepts mendacity in the name of satire. If I claimed to be mocking vapid dinner-party conversation-starters with my dishonest answer, then I would have crossed no line.

Maliszewski wants his nonfiction strictly nonfictional – with this one exception. He thinks the confections of reporters like Glass and Blair show how journalism depends on narrative “forms” that can be easily followed in dishonest articles giving the appearance of truth. Glass, he says, showed neither imagination nor originality in his fake reporting; instead, he merely wrote stories that confirmed the assumptions of editors and readers. Others may make up stories in order to reach bestseller lists or, in the case of phony Holocaust memoirists Binjamin Wilkomirski and Misha Defonseca, because of mental disturbances. He complains that Glass’s articles, including those on the First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ and about a phenomenal young computer hacker, betray a sarcastic attitude but have no satiric intent. His own fake business columns and letters to the editor, on the other hand, bravely extended the tradition of Jonathan Swift. Maliszewski says he used irony and pseudonyms to satirize the ideas and conventions of journalism and reporters’ regular practice of presenting corporate press releases and other marketing material as actual news.

Even when considering other categories of fraud, Maliszewski circles back to those who write about them. He wonders if journalist Frank Wynne fabricates dialogue in his biography of Han van Meegeren, who concocted fake Johannes Vermeer paintings, for instance. In an omnibus essay on several con-men, he describes a scam that promised investors shares of Sir Francis Drake’s fortune by discussing a biography of one of the scheme’s twentieth-century practitioners, Oscar Hartzell. Maliszewski makes the obligatory mention of Barnum by commenting on another biography. Turning to William Thompson, who stopped “genteel” appearing strangers on the street and asked, “Have you confidence in me to trust me with our watch until to-morrow?,” Maliszewski quotes a New York Herald article credited with the first printed use of the term “confidence man.” (Maliszewski gives the story’s date as 1848; other sources list July 1849. My own research into the matter convinces me that the 1849 date is correct. Is this a simple error, or does Maliszewski intend subtle satire of publishers’ shoddy fact-checking?)

In an aside about the 2002 off-Broadway show Ricky Jay: On the Stem, he names one of the star’s colorfully and precisely titled books on “conjuring, unusual entertainments, confidence games, [and] the biographies of eccentric characters,” as Jay describes the contents of Jay’s Journal of Anomalies: Conjurers, Cheats, Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pranksters, Jokesters, Imposters, Pretenders, Sideshow Showmen, Armless Calligraphers, Mechanical Marvels, Popular Entertainments.

Maliszewski doesn’t document a delightful bit of trickster trivia involving On the Stem. A few years after the David Mamet-directed show closed, another performer, Eric Walton, mounted one with some of the same tricks Jay used. In “The Knight’s Tour,” Jay called out numbers to guide the knight through single stops on each square on a large, lighted chessboard, at which Jay never looked. He did this while also calculating cube roots, reciting Shakespeare and singing. In his version of the mental feat, Walton named state capitals. After seeing Walton’s Esoterica, Jay quipped, “I paid for a ticket and I sat through the show, and I would very much like my money and my material back.” Although Jay did not invent the bit, or claim to have done so, a friend of Jay’s said Walton’s act “border[ed] on plagiarism,” according to a New York Times account of the dispute between professional liars over ownership of someone else’s effect.

Jay wittily combined card tricks and vaudevillian acts with humorous stories about show business, but Maliszewski seeks a serious moral lesson from the show. After intermission, Jay sold boxes of candy, some of which he said contained prizes like a gold watch and a hundred dollar bill in addition to potency-boosting sweets. Seeing many eager buyers of Ricky Jay’s Chocolates, Maliszewski muses: “Has no one learned a single lesson from Thompson, Barnum, and Hartzell?”

Some people have, including an author who studied precisely some of those con-men Maliszewski names. The story of original con-man William Thompson almost certainly provided Melville with raw material for his 1857 novel The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, which also refers to Barnum’s exhibits. (Although he writes of Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain and other literary figures drawn to confidence games and humbug, Maliszewski ignores Melville and his novel.)

Melville dramatizes the difficulty, perhaps even the impossibility, of capturing the elusive, cunning truth. The Confidence-Man contains multiple tricksters (or serial manifestations by an appearance-altering demon) playing various scams: a crippled beggar, a man down on his luck seeking a loan, a doctor selling cures, a charity agent soliciting donations and the like. “Melville’s book now seems a prophetically postmodern work in which swindler cannot be distinguished from swindled and the confidence man tells truth and lies simultaneously,” Andrew Delbanco writes in Melville: His World and Work. The biographer cites a passage describing misanthropy as a lack of confidence in kindness that, for all its “right and wise” praise of love, is spoken by a con-man trying to win a doubter’s trust. While it satirizes Christians’ susceptibility to hatred of sinners as well as sin, The Confidence-Man ultimately provides no firm philosophical place to stand, setting characters teetering between heart-hardening cynicism and foolish faith. The trusting can be gullible, but the skeptics can also be conned. The indeterminate nature of Melville’s title character underlines the unlikelihood of arriving at certainty. Hershel Parker summarizes Melville’s novel as “a book in which the Devil comes aboard the world-ship to preach Christianity as an April Fool’s joke.” But it can also be read as following a human master of disguises. “Is he, or is he not, what he seems to be?” a character asks. Melville does not offer a simple answer.

Confidence games trade on the conundrum of never surely knowing how to distinguish between appearance and reality. Yet Maliszewski prides himself on being able to spot fakes (like Chabon’s tale of his former neighbor) and suggests that even elaborate schemes that fooled others can be easily seen through with the passage of time. Those forged Vermeers strike him as crude, for instance. It is easy to separate the legitimate from the fraudulent after all! He reduces a real dilemma to a mere matter of paying closer attention. “Looks are one thing, and facts are another,” he might say, as someone does in The Confidence-Man, which also has a con-man disingenuously reflect on the confusion that accompanies having god’s revealed truth and apocrypha bound up together in one volume.

Melville, who may have based a character in The Confidence-Man on a barber the showman describes in his 1855 autobiography, ponders the trustworthiness of taxidermy in a manner that resembles Barnum’s reflections on one of his renowned artifacts. Melville writes that “experience is the only guide here; but as no man can be coextensive with what is, it may be unwise in every case to rest upon it.” For illustration, he points to the Australian duck-billed beaver. Naturalists, he says, declared “that there was, in reality, no such creature; the bill in the specimen must needs be, in some way, artificially stuck on.” Scientists relying on their experience to grasp what is can mistake their classifications for reality and dismiss something unfamiliar as phony. Then again, sometimes such things are faked. In The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself, the author recounts an episode that would fit seamlessly in Melville’s novel. Considering whether to purchase the body of a purported mermaid, Barnum seeks an expert’s verdict, or as he puts it:

Not trusting my own acuteness on such matters, I requested my naturalist’s opinion on the genuineness of the animal. He replied that he could not conceive how it was manufactured; for he never knew a monkey with such peculiar teeth, arms, hands, etc., nor had he knowledge of a fish with such peculiar fins.
“Then why do you suppose it is manufactured?” I enquired.
“Because I don’t believe in mermaids,” replied the naturalist.
“That is no reason at all,” said I, “and therefore I’ll believe in the mermaid, and hire it.”

Of course, what Barnum chose to believe had nothing to do with the animal authenticity of the “Feejee Mermaid.” After confidently stating that those paying customers who examined it became convinced of its reality, Barnum declares it a fake, but one that deserved to be considered a real work of art. “Assuming, what is no doubt true, that the mermaid was manufactured, it was a most remarkable specimen of ingenuity and untiring patience.” Even if the thing is not an actual mermaid, the object reveals something of human nature and the creative impulse, the quest for ecstatic, if not literal, truth.

Just as Melville suggests preconceptions can keep people from recognizing reality, Maliszewski believes hoaxes highlight unquestioned assumptions. One that has survived since the label “confidence man” first appeared – one that Maliszewski does not challenge – is that confidence games reveal something about the American soul. The description of passengers of diverse national and professional backgrounds aboard the Fidèle makes Melville’s Mississippi steamboat a microcosm of American society, as if it were especially accommodating of confidence-men. A century and a half later, in Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam, Pope Brock explicitly claims that America has a “special genius for swindle” and that “there has probably never been a more quack-prone and quack-infested country than the United States.” He says this even though he writes of European counterparts to the con-man of his title, a self-designated doctor who claimed to restore men’s virility via implantation of goat testicles.

Although in Fakers he covers a few hoaxes occurring outside the United States, Maliszewski returns to the notion of an especially American susceptibility to and propensity for them. The Dutch forger van Meegeren and the European writers of false Holocaust memoirs he discusses did not fool only Americans. Nonetheless, Maliszewski believes cons “expose inherent gaping contradictions in the American character,” such as “our boundless optimism married to our blind ambition; our insatiable greed matched by our lack of rigorous business sense; our belief in hard work coexisting with our dream of never having to work again; our insistence on high returns despite our being too risk-averse to ever realize them.” Confidence men everywhere rely on and exploit such contradictions.

And believers collaborate with liars, as Maliszewski knows. As he says of the Feejee Mermaid, audiences did not necessarily fall for Barnum’s tricks; instead, “they were delighted by the chance, for a modest monetary consideration, to wonder whether or not they were being fooled and, if so, how they could tell.” He gives essentially the same reason for attending Chabon’s lecture a second time without registering his own resemblance to Barnum’s ticket-buyers.

Even so, he insists that people do not like to be fooled, which does challenge a convention of confidence-game-related writing. Brock, for instance, contends that Americans have always “joyously embraced” fakers. According to Barnum, “the public appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived.” Chabon describes his audience as the “willing-to-be-hoodwinked.” Magicians like Jay, writers like Roth, and directors such as Herzog and Mamet count on audiences’ openness to illusion and their enjoyment of misdirection.

Maliszewski underestimates the human desire to be deceived. Admiration for “artists of the fraudulent” endures, as does confounded perception of reality. (“The grand points of human nature are the same to day they were a thousand years ago,” Melville writes in The Confidence-Man. “The only variability in them is in expression, not in feature.”) Describing one of the fake news analysts he invented, Maliszewski says he created the embodiment of the money-making dreams of business newspaper readers. Successful con-men function the same way. As David W. Maurer in The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man says of the commonplace wish to get something for nothing:

“Larceny,” or thieves’ blood, runs not only in the veins of professional thieves; it would appear that humanity at large has just a dash of it – and sometimes more. And the con man has learned that he can exploit this human trait to his own ends; if he builds it up carefully and expertly, it flares from simple latent dishonesty to an all-consuming lust which drives the victim to secure funds for speculation by any means at his command.

(Anyone who thinks money-manager/pyramid-builder Bernard Madoff pulled off something new with his investment scheme should consult Maurer’s 1940 handbook.) What Americans don’t care for is failures, like the exposed frauds Maliszewski writes about. “Fakers,” he explains, “by their nature, remain elusive,” but this is a talent Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Laura Albert and James Frey did not have.

Maliszewski misreads the challenge implicit in true con artists’ mixing, blurring and faking. Despite the complicating efforts of clever pretenders, he writes as if truth and untruth resided in clearly demarcated zones. Some wily characters may try to misrepresent untruth as truth. Such trickery is permissible, he allows, when hoaxers want to draw attention to unquestioned assumptions or journalistic laziness. Otherwise it amounts to moral laxity. While he thinks Chabon demotes real life in favor of fiction, Maliszewski underappreciates art’s ability to reveal truth through fakery. He implies that the truth of accountants (or upright journalists) can be the whole truth. The tricks he finds so entertaining ought to undermine such confidence.

___
John G. Rodwan, Jr.’s work has appeared in publications such as The Mailer Review, Spot Literary Magazine, California Literary Review, Slow Trains, The Brooklyn Rail, American Writer, Free Inquiry, the Humanist and the International Labor Office’s Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety. He has lived in Portland, Oregon; Brooklyn, New York; Geneva, Switzerland; and Detroit, Michigan.

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