Amy Reading's The Mark Inside is perhaps the best book I've ever read on con artists and con artistry, a retelling of one of the classic stories of the bunco boom that marked the start of the 20th century in America. Reading builds her book around the life story of J Frank Norfleet, a soft-spoken, thrifty Texas rancher who built his fortune up from nothing, only to lose it all to a gang of swindlers. Norfleet became obsessed with the men who'd victimized him, and became a nationally famous vigilante, crisscrossing America bent on capturing and jailing the whole gang -- and any other con-men he met along the way.
Norfleet himself was transformed by his quest, which awoke in him a kind of inner showman and bunco artist. He delighted in showing off for the press and for audiences, spinning yarns as adeptly as the con artists he hunted. In order to get cooperation from government prosecutors and lawmen, he had to flimflam them, too, convincing them with carefully scripted cons of his own. Reading places Norfleet's con within the wider context of the con-artists who ruled America and the shifting American attitude towards wagering and speculating, showing how the whole nation was moving itself from a republican thriftiness to a nation that mythologized plungers and get-rich-quickmen who made a fortune by dicing with dollars in markets and at the faro tables.
I've read dozens of books about and by con artists (the bunco boom had its own publishing wing, and every fast talker who lived long enough seems to have penned a memoir after the fashion of The Yellow Kid Weil). Not a one of them captures the pathos and bathos, the absurdity and temerity, the virtuosity and the venality of the con man quite like Reading. She writes with the lyricism of a magic realist, but with the rigor of a historian, and so much of her best analysis springs from her explorations of the differences between different accounts of the same events.
Books like Where Wizards Stay Up Late and The Right Stuff and The Information perfectly captured their own individual moments in time -- turning points in the modern history of the Earth. The Mark Inside stands with these as an engrossing and illuminating account of the moment at which speculation -- not thrift -- became the order of the day in America, and it's thrilling and hilarious by turns and when you're done, you understand the past and the present better.Next post