Archive for February, 2012

Review: “Yellow Kid” Weil

Monday, February 13th, 2012

J. R. Weil’s autobiography, “Yellow Kid” Weil: The Autobiography of America’s Master Swindler, is an interesting read for anyone interested in how confidence men live.  It is not about the mechanics of the cons, really, but about how a life of playing them played out.  To see the logistics of the  games and the world, check out The Big Con, to which Weil also contributed.

What struck me about the autobiography is how much of a toll this all seems to have taken on Weil, even when he does not really seem to admit it to himself.  He is in no way contrite about how he lived his life or made his money.  He never expresses any regret at having lied to people.  But, over the course of the book, the reader sees that the life of a confidence man has its stresses.

Most of those stresses seem to stem from not being able to get out of the criminal underground once you have risen to a certain point in it.  Weil tries to become a legitimate businessman several times in his life, only to be foiled by one of his buddies involving him in some scheme or other – often without his knowledge.  Weil does several stretches in prison, and while he does not characterize them in horrific terms, it is clear that he does not want to do it again.  Throughout the book he seems to be moving from one place that he’s burned a bridge to another in which he’ll burn one when he gets there.  It adds up to a difficult existence.

Not that he dwells on it.  There are plenty of high times, blowing money he swindled, rubbing elbows with the wealthy, or just carrying out another con.  And his joy in carrying out a con is evident.  He knows that the details on paper are just the details of lying to people to get their money, but his excitement at doing it well jumps off the page.  He delights in the small trappings and tweaks that make the general scam into a personal trap.  It is hard not to share his enthusiasm.

Other than the part where each chapter starts with who he is on the run from this time, that is.

A diverting read told with – I may rethink this later, but – honesty.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Pulphead

Monday, February 13th, 2012

For me, reading Pulphead was the experience of discovering a great new writer.  I know others have already realized that John Jeremiah Sullivan is a great writer – these pieces have all been out in the world in some form or another for a while – but for me this was a slow pleasant immersion in his thoughtful, personal, intellectual explorations of American culture.

The topics in Pulphead range from the nakedly personal –  an essay about his brother recovering from a traumatic brain injury – to the glossily fluffy – a description of a personal appearance by people on MTV’s Real World reality franchise.  The breadth of the topics is not remarkable; we live in a world of stunt authors willing to dive into unusual situations and drag a book out of it.  What is remarkable in Sullivan’s essays is how he invests himself personally and intellectually in each situation.  These are personal essays in the very best sense of the word.  He brings his unique perspective to each encounter fearlessly while balancing the personal with keen analysis, introspection, and consideration.  Each one is a compelling cozy conversation with an interesting thinker.

The range of topics encourages a range of tone, though, that shows off Sullivan’s range admirably.  He can be a surprisingly playful writer and each essay offers opportunities to show off different aspects of his style.  To his credit, these aspects are not the ones one might expect from the essay topics.  It brings a certain sense of discovery to each one.

While Sullivan works some of the same territory as Chuck Klosterman, they are very distinct writers.  I do suspect that Klosterman fans who have not read Sullivan are in for a treat.  As are readers who have not read Sullivan for any other reason.

Strongly recommended.


Review: Teleport This

Monday, February 13th, 2012

One of the interesting things about the Kindle store is that one can find a lot of work by very small authors in there.  I forget how I happened on Christopher Daniels’s  Teleport This, but I know I was looking for a science-fiction-flavored page-turner for light entertainment.  Teleport This fit that bill nicely.

Overall I would say that Teleport is a new writer working out his chops, not a virtuoso performance, yet.  While the plot was diverting, it was also fairly pedestrian.  The characters were distinct, but all likeable; I could sympathize with the villains.  While those elements were competently executed, I found the dialog to be very strong.  Daniels writes characters that are fun to listen to, in the sense that screwball comedies or Oscar Wilde characters are fun to listen to.  Their dialog is just stylized enough to be snappy while staying realiztic enough to be believeable.

Probably the biggest weakness is that the characters are all just a little too likeable.  As with Deadman’s The Art Of Arrow Cutting, everyone here is agreeable and reasonable, or they are a villainous caricature.

Fun to see a writer working out his voice somewhat.

Review: The Big Jump

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Richard Bak’s The Big Jump does an excellent job telling much of the story of the creation and pursuit of the prize that Lindbergh was to win for the first solo crossing of the Atlantic from New York to Paris.  There’s a lot of specificity in naming the goal of the Orteig Prize, and one of the fascinating parts of this particular chunk of history is how that specific feat captured so much of the world’s attention.  It is an odd little niche of history and well worth the treatment Bak gives it.

You cannot tell this story without talking about Lindbergh, of course, but Bak admirably brings to life both the other daredevils seeking the prize and the man who established it.  Raymond Orteig found the challenge that would ignite not only the imaginations of the flyers who would try for it, but also of the public who would breathlessly watch it.  Bak is insightful in pointing this out.

Orteig is an interesting character, and in many other histories would be one of the most interesting players.  1920’s aviation had a bumper corp of remarkable folks in play, though, and Bak paints them all with some verve.  One-legged French aces, sparky engineers, and a self-promoter who sneaks himself onto a trans-oceanic attempt to duck out on his wife are only a few of the characters who drift on and off the stage illuminated by the prize.

There are certainly some things left out, and in many ways The Big Jump is like the Ortieg prize itself.  It generates interest in a great achievement, but there is more to do fully realize its promise.  Lighting that fire is an fine achievement.

Strongly Recommended.