So your dad is distant and flighty one minute and tender to the point of smothering the next. The dad whose child support payments were as infrequent as his visits is also the same dad that took you on wonderful summer vacations to his lakeside cottage.
Every couple of years this dad 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 delaminates like tawdry motel wallpaper, you understand his turnarounds are more of a theatrical event (staged for your benefit) than anything viable.
An addict, a 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 comes 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 "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 much of the fear mongering that's spoonfed to teens in hopes of controlling them. Vogel's experience testifies that like her, most "troubled" kids 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, can't help 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 (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 immediacy of the time she spent with him.
While it's understandable that she has mixed feelings, sometimes their manifestation is hard to stomach. For example, Vogel still seems rather proud that her dad was the "4th largest counterfeiter in U.S. history."
In snippets, however, the author's observations are extraordinary. Vogel is a writer possessed of an ethnographic 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.
Being indulgent by their very nature, memoirs can suffer a host of pitfalls. Vogel dodges all of them, never pandering for our sympathy or engaging in blame games. One only wishes that she had logged more time with the man whose complex legacy still haunts her. No doubt Jennifer Vogel wishes so too.
-- John Dicker
Flim-Flam Man: A True Family History
By Jennifer Vogel
(Scribner: New York) $23/hardcover