Looking back at the year, the book that has stuck with me most is The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man by David Maurer, a social anthropology of grifters, swindlers, and confidence artists in the first half of the 20th century. Though published in 1940, it provided me an unexpectedly useful lens to view Donald Trump. Maurer was a linguistics professor and The Big Con began as a treatise on underworld slang before evolving into an exploration of manufactured fantasies and how they distort our understanding and expectation of the realities we inhabit. He lucidly describes the human propensity to believe convincing fictions over inconvenient facts. Every good con, in Maurer’s telling, is a story fine-tuned to touch the vulnerabilities and vanities of its audience. The con artists he documents view themselves as legitimate artists, an amalgam of showman, thespian, and playwright whose successes depend on transforming Pullman cars, betting parlors, and brokerages into elaborate stage sets where their scripted dramas unfold.
Maurer doesn’t treat the con artist’s marks as victims, but as accomplices to their own demise. “Once a man admits complete and unshakable faith in his own integrity,” Maurer writes, “he is in an excellent frame of mind to be approached by con men…often his rationalization mechanisms are so perfectly developed that he never admits, even to himself, that he is fundamentally dishonest.” Beyond all this, it’s a terrifically entertaining read (large sections of The Sting were drawn from Maurer’s work). Who knew that Benito Mussolini fell victim to an enterprising American confidence man, who would later be written about by Saul Bellow? Or that big cons sometimes ended with “the cackle-bladder,” a staged murder involving blood filled chicken bladders? Afterward, I read The Mark Inside by Amy Reading, which chronicles the life of J. Frank Norfleet, a rancher who lost his savings to a gang of confidence men and then became something of a confidence artist himself in his efforts to bring them to justice.
I’ve been reading up on Billy Wilder for a new project and highly recommend On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder for any Wilder fans, particularly because its author finds the fictions Wilder created to account for his life as worthy of study as his real biography. In a similar vein, City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s by Otto Friedrich is a book I’ve been rereading throughout the year, partly to compensate for “You Must Remember This” podcast withdrawal, and partly because it’s hands down the best history of Los Angeles I know of.
In fiction, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Lara Vapnyar’s Still Here, Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots, Leila Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies, and the first two of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet are all novels that left me whistling with awe and inspired to write. On my nightstand right now is The Mountain and the Wall by Dagestani author Alisa Ganieva. Her novel was published in English two weeks after Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy. Now it feels even more relevant. It revolves around Russia’s plans to build a massive wall across its southern end to seal off the Muslim population of the Northern Caucasus. So far it’s a brilliant book, and a reminder that the problem with good speculative fictions is that history has a way of proving them prophetical.
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