Every couple of years, this dad of yours seems poised for a major turnaround. No more chronic debt, no more alcohol, coke or failed relationships. This time, the real-estate scheme, the restaurant or the soon-to-be patented “jean stretcher” will pay off. Only it never does. And as the sheen of parental infallibility peels away like tawdry motel wallpaper, you understand his turnarounds are more like theatrical events, staged for your benefit, than anything viable.
An addict, a flat-out racist, an ex-con with delusional ambition: This is John Vogel, father of Jennifer Vogel, a writer who’s spent the last 10 years working for papers much like this one in Minneapolis and Seattle. Flim- Flam Man is a memoir about her dad, a man whose claim to fame was getting caught in the fourth-largest counterfeiting bust in U.S. history, but whose legacy transcends the sensational headlines that greeted his violent death.
Vogel’s narrative begins with her father’s funeral in 1995 and then shifts between his final months as an FBI fugitive and the author’s coming-of-age story. Vogel, the author, was raised in South Dakota by her mother, who struggled to support her young family.
When her mom remarries a wealthy doctor who leaves his family and degenerates into an aloof drunk, Vogel rebels in standard teen fashion: cutting school and exploiting the usual pharmaceutical suspects. When the situation at home reaches a breaking point, she flees to Minneapolis and her father.
In the big city, she gets to know her real dad, who proves to be a loving but largely incapable parent. The overarching epiphany of Vogel’s adolescence, as she recalls, is that “not a lot happens when you break the rules.” At 17, she moves out of her dad’s house and into a slummy apartment with her druggy boyfriend. Vogel’s personal narrative provides an interesting counterpoint to so many of the scare tactics force-fed to teens in hopes of controlling them through fear. Vogel’s experience testifies that, like her, most “troubled” kids manage to figure things out on their own.
Ultimately, Flim-Flam Man tells two separate stories that don’t mesh in a cohesive or meaningful way. Not knowing whether this is Jennifer’s or John’s book serves to confuse, if not confound the reader. Those familiar with another true tale of a shady dad, Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception, won’t help but notice how Flim-Flam Man suffers from the author’s lack of dad access. Vogel admits not having any contact with her dad during his last four years, a crucial period when, after being released from jail (where he served 10 years on fraud charges), he can’t deal with life on the up and up. Though Vogel puts her reporting skills to good use in retracing her father’s last years, this part of the narrative lacks the vivid immediacy of the time she spent with him.
While it’s understandable that the author would have mixed feelings about her subject, sometimes the results are hard to take. For example, Vogel still seems a little too proud that her dad was the “4th largest counterfeiter in U.S. history,” something she reminds us of repeatedly, as though it was akin to attaining an honorary degree from Princeton.
Vogel also proudly notes her dad’s preference for breaking his bogus benjamins at Wal-Marts because of his longstanding contempt for what the world’s largest retailer does to mom-and-pop retailers. After cataloguing so much of her father’s irresponsible, often heartless behavior, it’s frustrating that she would expect readers to be able to fancy her dad as a latter-day Robin Hood.
Perhaps just as sad, it also seems Vogel still wishes to believe that her father was just a stone’s throw from living on the up and up. Prior to his bust, she notes that he was only a day away from making a payment (albeit with counterfeit money) on a strip-mall restaurant. Maybe this is just an example of tragic irony, but after a lifetime spent bearing the brunt of more than a few checkered schemes, it’s hard to believe she’d take this final gesture seriously.
In snippets, however, the author’s observations are extraordinary. Vogel is a writer possessed of an ethnographer’s ability to detail the significance of seemingly minor behaviors. Witness the following:
“He purchased us kids generic orange tennis shoes from the Holiday station store. In fact, he bought everything from the Holiday station store: fishing poles, inner tubes, towels, groceries. At the same time, he always chose the small bottle of ketchup, not the economy size, refusing to invest in the future.”
If Flim-Flam Man shortchanges us, it does so in the same way most historical fiction does, leaving the reader with not enough substantive history or character development. Here the split is between the divergent stories of Jennifer and her dad. While she was his favorite daughter, they’re not exactly birds of a feather. The anger the writer is left with remains raw, but not thoroughly deciphered, despite nearly a decade elapsed since her dad’s death.
Being indulgent by their very nature, memoirs can suffer a host of pitfalls. Nevertheless, Flim-Flam Man dodges many a memoir trap. At no time does the author reveal too much unnecessary information, duck responsibility for her decisions, or become smitten with herself. One only wishes she had logged more time with the man whose complex legacy still haunts her. No doubt Jennifer Vogel wishes so, too.