Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff

My dad, the con man

This was a researched biography, from birth to death, of Duke Wolff, father of the author. As a young boy, the son, Geoff, hero-worships his dashing dad. World War II hero, Skull and Bones man, a take charge executive rolling in dough. This persona, however, turns out to be a lie.  Duke Wolff was actually a petty criminal, inveterate liar, yet talented enough to keep getting engineering job after job. The family is constantly moving, from shack to palace and back again, one step ahead of the bailiff. On the other hand, if the reader ignores the many scenes of sickening terror, it does seem like the family had some good times. Eventually, Geoff’s young mother gets fed up with losing all her friends and flees to Florida with the two children. Their country club lifestyle is downsized as she gets a job working forty hours a week at Dairy Queen. One day when he's twelve, Geoff, who is depicted as a menacing problem child, abandons his mother to live with his father, who always displayed a strong love for his son.Somewhere around age 20, Geoff snaps out of “it,” starts to achieve under his own steam rather than lying to people, and realizes he must cut off his father, if he wants a tranquil life.

This memoir was beautifully written, a mosaic of plain words, a tale shaped by a life, from Duke’s privileged birth as the only son of doting parents to his death, his naked corpse lying unnoticed for two weeks. I also admired the way Wolff weaves his own life story into the narrative, from innocent kid to serious trouble maker. His father seems like a demon seed and Geoff seems to be going down exactly the same path. Many times, Geoff is depicted as just an out-and-out asshole and I grew worried he was going to turn out like dad. Like many other excellent memoirs, this is a mixture of the high accomplished lyrical voice and the criminally insane parent. Maybe the criminally insane parent part is that part that forges a writer.

Are con men born or made? Probably born. Although young Duke Wolff seems to have had an amazingly spoiled childhood. One thing I can never figure out about people like Duke is the amount of effort they spend on the deception is almost as much if they actually worked hard to achieve what they wanted.  Perhaps their problem is a profound laziness. Or a profound rejection of society’s mercantile values. Also, again and again the father seriously underestimates people's intelligence. Geoff never speculates on mental illness but the father must have had one. The most ambiguous scene in the book is the scene where, the Duke gives his son a precious gift of a year at Princeton, paid for by selling his ex-wife’s family silver.

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