Tuesday, June 05, 2007


I recently read "The Ballad of the Flim Flam Man" by Guy Owen as part of Maggie’s Southern Reading Challenge.
I really enjoyed this book, which was written in 1965, and its colorful descriptions ("Like Pa always said, Wish in one hand and pee in the other and see which hand gets full the quickest"), and characters. The story revolves around Mordecai Jones, the Flim Flam Man, and his brief partnership with Curley Treadaway, a young man AWOL from the army. They meet while Jones is being unceremoniously evicted from the moving freight train that Curley hoped to catch. Curley quickly realizes this isn’t just any old tramp, this is THE Flim Flam Man, rumored to have escaped from a Georgia prison. Initially, they con a storekeeper with some 3 card Monte to get enough money for food and the basics, and from there plan to pull off enough cons to get themselves each a $500 stake. Ostensibly they are heading towards Wilmington, but they never get far from the tobacco fields and small towns around Cape Fear, North Carolina. The book, for me, has a real depression era feel to it - but for a few references to the Korean War and television, I would have placed the story in the ‘30s.
The cons they pull off are all great fun, and they even steal a truck full of liquor from a local moonshiner, and then proceed to drive that truck all over the back roads dispensing good spirits wherever they go. The boys know they can rely on southern hospitality, particularity from the local black folk: "He stopped and asked us if we wanted a ride. I took it as a pretty good sign - - though most Negroes will do that . . . they are mighty good to help a white man when he’s down and out and other white folks are ready to peck him to death, like chickens after a sick hen."

The success of Jones arises from his understanding that most men are motivated by greed. "Greed’s my line, lad" he tells Curley, "And fourteen carat ignorance. You might say I’m one who puts his trust in the taint of corruption in the human heart". They encounter this corruption in everyone from store owners to Dynamite Doakus, the tent revival preacher taking advantage of country poor folks with little money to spare. After Doakus, whom Curley calls "Bogus," is taken ill after over-imbibing in moonshine supplied by our heroes, it is Jones that delivers a true sermon about confessing one’s sins and forgiveness. Almost equally as contemptible to Jones are those "legitimate" businessman who were "the greatest conmen of all, only they was spoiled by greed."

Some ideas are timeless, and I found I could relate to the cynicism of Jones about the greed of most men, the old idea that you can’t con an honest man, and the apparent lack of Christian ideals in some of our religious leaders, even though the con takes place over the television rather than in revival tents.

This book was fairly hard to track down, but I highly recommend it!

8 Comments:

Blogger Princess in Galoshes said...

Nice review! I've never heard of this book, but now I'm curious. I'll start looking for it at my local used books haunts. :-)

3:06 PM  
Blogger Maggie said...

LOVE IT and I want to read it! I think Jones cleaned-up the saying, though. It's, "Wish in one hand and s&!t in the other, and see which one fills up first." I know this because it is one of my dad's all time favorite mantras.

I'm thrilled you enjoyed your first selection. :)

5:34 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

Need to start reading more since you and sage have piqued my interest.

6:21 PM  
Blogger NY KAT said...

I'll have to add it to my list.

6:54 PM  
Blogger GetFlix said...

Nice review. It sounds like the lack of time reference was a deliberate choice of the author.

8:05 PM  
Blogger v said...

I, too, had not heard of this book or perhaps only in passing. But I'm quite interested by your stellar review as well. Sounds like a timeless tale of humanity and friendship. Great review Diane!

9:38 PM  
Blogger sage said...

You did real well with this review Diane! I'm glad you liked the book--it's been years since I read it and I need to go back and reread it. Owens published a few other collections of short stories about the Flim Flam Man. I'll be back reading blogs more regularly next Wednesday.

6:51 PM  
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