By Guy Owen
Any wanna-be conmen out there, grifters who’d like to put a bit of spit and polish on their scams?
Give The Ballad of the Flim-Flam Man a read.
This hilarious primer for the con follows the trail of the larcenous Mordecai Jones, the man who wrote the book on scamming.
And what an incredible teaching opportunity the novel affords Mordecai—coaching the art of tat, punchboarding, three-card monte, the Slick Box, the pocketbook, Medicine Man, smack, and finally, the granddaddy of them all, the pay off.
At the outset the Flim-Flam Man has the good fortune—along his cop dodging way— to hook up with a most astute and willing student.
Jones chances to meet Curley Treadaway, a young guitar strumming country singer AWOL from the U.S. Army. Having had a recent unpleasantness with a Yankee drill sergeant back at Forth Bragg Treadaway is lamming down the back roads of eastern North Carolina on the run from MPs.
And the Flim-Flam Man?
Well he’s on the bound himself and as the two paths cross, the elder lands right at Curley’s feet, having just been punted from a freight train box car by a “railway dick!”
Curley Treadaway is the voice of this delightful story, one where Guy Owen’s well drawn characters, vivid scenes, spot-on dialog and colloquialisms take us back to a very special time and place in the South.
Treadaway to the Flim-Flam Man upon his auspicious arrival: “Mr. Jones, what’s your line now? I could have bit my tongue off for inquiring. He never batted an eyelash. I daresay he already had me pegged and pigeonholed. There was a pause and you could have heard a cricket clear his throat. Then Mordecai Jones leans forward and says quietly, ‘Greed’s my line, lad. And fourteen-carat ignorance. You might say I’m one who puts his trust in the taint of corruption in the human heart, and who reaps—‘”
“Come to find out, “Treadaway says, “Mr. Jones knew an awful lot about such crooked doings. And me, I didn’t know doodlum squat—-though I wasn’t against learning.”
So two men on the run— run “smack dab” into each other—one the mentor (con), the other the mentee (shill)! Treadaway learns that it takes two to tango, more than a slick flimflammer to fleece the unwashed. The Flammer require a helping hand from the Mark—as “. . . their (the Mark’s) God given greed, trust, corruption and ignorance insure vulnerability!”
Had Samuel Clemens been alive (in 1965) and stumbled upon Owen’s wonderful piece of Americana he’d have surly tipped his plug hat to the author’s dialog, as lines like this might be mistaken for Twain’s very own.
Treadaway regards the tools of the Flim-Flam Man’s trade: “I never in my born days saw such a raft of stuff crammed in one pasteboard satchel. Besides a half-a-dozen black string ties, I picked up three African dominoes, a new deck of cards, two fancy punchboards, a wide canvas belt, blue bottles of pills and powders, all sorts of notebooks and order blanks, a wad of play money big enough to choke a Billy goat, a ragged Bible and one of them little bitty screw books—a Popeye and Olive Oyle. Not to mention a rubber hose, a book of poems, and dozens of little white cards with a lot of different names printed on them. It looked mysterious as all hell.”
So off they go, with us along for the ride—two scoundrels scamming their way into our hearts and into more trouble than even a world class scallywag like Mordecai Jones could have imagined.
First night, both starved and holding up in an old railway car they take their newly formed act to town in search of a few bucks for libation and grub. After double teaming a greedy grocer in a game of three-card monte, the game Jones calls “Mexico’s gift to the grifters,” they, with the Marks hot on their tails, beat a hasty escape back to their boxcar hideaway. Where in route Mordecai makes several pit stops by a few shanties to sell love potions at two bits a piece, then some potency pills guaranteed to be more powerful than ginseng root plus a slew of oysters. And to cap the evening off? He palms off three ‘diamonds’ for five dollars to the watchman at the fertilizer plant.
Not bad for an evening’s work.
“ You see, nowadays you can sell anything on God’s green earth, so long as you make out like it’s stolen. It’s the gospel truth. I never saw it fail. You can call it Mordecai Jones’s First Law,” Jones says.
While hiding from THE law—in the backs of tobacco trucks, ditches, barns etc. —through the novelist’s well crafted conversations we learn that Curley Treadaway has his heart set on stage and fame, and that he is in fact a talented country singer, a kid who has appeared on the radio and on stage at the Grand Ole Opry with a group called the Briar Patch Boys.
As to Mordecai Jones, well there’s no telling, even in the tellin’.
Treadaway on Mordecai: “The Flim-Flam, he loosened up a bit and told me about some more of his experiences which was interesting, though I can’t remember them all. Course, he didn’t mention he’d busted out of the Georgia penitentiary, much less tell me how he’d done it. He talked about happier days. Said he’d traveled with a tent show all over the states and worked on papers in New Orleans and Memphis. It’s no telling how many places he’d been and people he knew. He told about how Kid Yellow Gloves smooth-talked a Texas banker out of a cool hundred thousand and how two Bunco artists took Babe Ruth for ninety grand in Cuba. It turned out he knew personal the fellow that threw the World Series in 1917, and one of his best friends sold the Eiffel Tower twice. Things like that, he told. In better times he’d moved amongst a lot of high muckety-mucks, important folks like dukes and bookies.
So it was easy to see how far he’d come down in the world. For a God’s wonder, though, it never seemed to dampen his spirits one iota. Fact is, he seemed to be happy at having to hide out in this tar kiln. It was something that gave him a challenge.”
And the challenges come thick and fast. If they’re not on the run stealing chickens and treating greedy locals to an “education” through their scams and games of chance, they’re conning pin hookers at tobacco sales, or kicking over Doodle Powell’s still, stealing the bootlegger’s truck and shine. The procured truck becomes the “vehicle” that takes our story from eastern North Carolina to the mountains and back home again.
Along the way when Curley (at an impromptu barn dance) takes a shine to a farmer’s daughter, the lovely Miss Bonnie Lee, he puts their cover in jeopardy. And as Owen’s novel hits the far turn it isn’t just the Law in eastern North Carolina that’s hot on their tails. Curley and Mordecai are dodging buckshot from former victims, with Packard, Bonnie Lee’s sleazy father, leading the chase.
Then just when we think we’ve seen it all, every trick in Mordecai’s satchel of “magic”, including the (almost) brilliantly played Payoff, Curley hits the wall. Well, not just the wall, cops in pursuit, he lands the well-stocked shine truck right smack dab in the middle of a church.
Treadaway: “That’s when all hell come loose at the seams. You’d a thought an atomic bomb had exploded, a big one loaded with corn whiskey. I declare, my load of rotgut purely baptized the poor little church. . . . .they tore the front door off the hinges. ‘It’s the end of the world!’ one cries. ‘Glory halleluiah!’ ‘Great God almighty,’ the preacher shouts, ‘judgment’s upon us!’”
Oh, in the end, just for good measure, there’s a jail break or two with Mordecai holding fast to his philosophy of life, maintaining until the end that their ill-gotten gains are no more than, “Gravy for the just!”
A great story. But it’s the voices that make this one a classic. Guy Owen’s dialogue is as crisp and clear as a well slammed jail cell. And racing down the homestretch, (once again) running like hell from the law we leave all this good fun knowing that the voices of Mordecai Jones and Curley Treadaway will be with us for “quite a spell!”
For a copy of The Ballad of the Flim-Flam Man check with your local librarian, order through your independent bookseller or try Amazon where you can buy the novel for the cost of a go at a game of tat or a poke at one of old Mordecai’s punchboards. Just click above on the book’s cover.