Saturday, June 19, 2004

Con Story

Catch Me If You Can, by Frank W. Abagnale with Stan Redding, Read by Barrett Whitener, Blackstone Audio, 2001

The memoir (if that’s the right word) of Frank W. Abagnale's Catch Me If You Can was recently made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. I made the fatal error of seeing the film first, something I almost religiously try to avoid as it taints the subsequent reading. As mightily as I tried, I couldn’t help but see the DiCaprio character in my head in certain scenes that hewed close to the original source.

Which isn’t to say that the movie is a faithful adaptation. There are some pivotal scenes and the general outline follows the same path, but Spielberg has to go and tinker with what’s an exciting enough and entertaining enough story. At some point in his childhood, Spielberg must have been unhappy because so many of his movies focus on an inherently miscommunicative parent-child relationship. (Note to Steven’s parents: Thanks a lot, assholes.) The film of this has an unhealthy need to tidily explain Abagnale’s crimes as a desire on his part to rescue his father’s failing fortunes in order to allow him to better win back his wife and Frank Jr.’s mom.

The book is less sob story and more engaging tale of the con. Like a lot of people, I have a weak spot in my heart for con-artists. With the possible exception of international jewel thieves, con-artists are probably the most romanticized criminals out there. I’m not sure I can put my thumb on exactly why con-artists are so loved, but I’ll try. There’s something exciting about watching a well-oiled scam go down, the ingeniousness of it. It’s akin to how mystery writers put things together so neatly. Perhaps there is also the self-congratulatory belief that you yourself would never, no not ever, be so gullible. For some reason watching others get fleeced is pleasurable.

Abagnale manages to feed that enjoyment and he feeds it pretty damn well. He has just the right level of argot-rich patter that you get a criminal glimpse, but not enough that the book comes off like a technical manual. Part of the allure, I think, of crime books in general is the learning of new words for things. In Catch Me If You Can, women are fillies, chicks, honeys, ladies, etc. Alcohol is sauce, juice, etc. One sentence that stuck in my mind was: “I was slipperier than a buttered escargot.” Another fine sentence of lovely, jargony vintage from that era went : “New York has more good looking chicks than a poultry farm.”

The true story for those who don’t know it: Frank William Abagnale Jr. left home at fifteen and almost immediately began life on the con. First it’s bad checks. Then he forged an ID card for Pan-American airlines and used it and a stolen uniform to “deadhead” flights around the country (“deadhead” means to ride for free in a spare seat in the cockpit), and with the same ID card he begins cashing bad checks. He finds the uniform gives his bad checks a certain legitimacy that makes people hardly ever question them; the uniform also shortwires any suspicion an out of town check might create. The bad check scam is his metier and he excels at it. So much so, that he is now considered the authority on the bad check scam.

Abagnale tells the story of how he became the master of paperhanging scams from the beginning, and it’s always just one step further each time. Steal fifty dollars one day, a hundred the next. It's the slow descent that nourishes the reader's fantasies, fantasies Abagnale mentions, the daydreams we all have of being the smooth criminal mastermind. It's that slow descent that allows the reader to think, there but for the grace etc.

The scams Abagnale pulls off are so brazen and the intellect necessary to pull this off is so high, you forget as you listen that Frank is, during this pilot period, a minor. Occasionally he'll drop a line like "juvenile delinquent" and you'll remember, “Oh yes, he's just a boy.” But the scams are told with such heightening tension that your heart races a little, you breathe a little faster, you feel that dread of Abagnale getting caught, and you forget everything else. The book is filled with that very pleasurable dread of suspense that Hitchcock spent his life evoking.

What’s impressive about Abagnale’s tale is the level of autodidacticism he brings to his crimes. He spends time in libraries researching, he interviews people involved in check creation, he keeps a notebook filled with terms and names he might need to know in the airline business. Throughout the course of his time, he poses as an airline pilot, a pediatrician, a lawyer, a sociology professor, and a writer. The latter is possibly the easiest pose to pull off.

Of all the high-risk scams, Abagnale tells the tale of being a pediatrician with the greatest level of hair-raising action. He pretends to be a pediatrician to get into a fancy apartment complex, but when another pediatrician moves in and begins hanging out with him, it’s only a matter of time before he’s put on the spot. Since this is a high stakes kind of book, Abagnale isn’t caught out not knowing a medical term or procedure. No, he is talked into sitting in as a night supervisor in the pediatric ward overseeing a group of interns. His ignorance of medical terms and procedures is easy enough to gloss over for a while, but when one of his gaffes goes too far, almost costing a newborn his life, he quits, just as he’s being replaced. This particular time in his life had my knuckles whitening on my desk.

Of course it’s not all fun and games. A con book without a bit of time in jail wouldn’t be complete. And what a horror story this is. Prior to reading this story, I’d always had this idealized vision of France as the home of The Enlightenment, the capital of liberal worldly thought. From hearing Abagnale’s time in various prisons and jails, my advice to any criminal minded reader is to avoid the Continent and commit any and all crimes in Scandinavia. From this report, their jails are low key, filled with opportunities for betterment at state-paid-for universities, lenient toward conjugal visits, and generally ideal rehabilitation centers.

What Abagnale offers us is a glimpse inside. It’s what all the marks want. We take for granted that Abagnale’s story is true, just like the suckers throughout his tale believe everything he says. It’s part of the trick of lying. You tell a bit of the truth, then you pile on the lies. Abagnale repeatedly lets others fill in his blanks or gooses the truth when necessary, but the con’s work lies primarily in letting others do the work for you. W.C. Fields did a film called You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man. Part of the allure, it was explained, was that honest men didn’t dream of rooking the system, didn’t dream of getting rich quick. Only potential crooks had that dream, and so cheating them wasn’t cheating honest men, even if they hadn’t yet committed a crime. Abagnale sticks to this code, but it’s hard not to believe that if you’ve ever dreamed of pulling off a big caper that you wouldn’t enjoy this book more than those who hadn’t ever entertained capital crimes fantasies.

The narrator Barrett Whitener aparently won an AudioFile Earphone Award for this reading — and he clearly deserves it. He has read other books by Abagnale and one suspects he delivers them with as much justice as he knocks this one out. There are a couple of sketchy accents he works through, but for the most part, Whitener’s delivery is amusing, playful, and full of the same hectic cheer that leads young Abagnale further and further down the wrong streets.

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