Daddy dearest

So, your dad was distant one minute and tender the next. His child-support payments were as infrequent as his visits, but he was the same dad who took you on wonderful summer vacations to his lakeside cottage.

Every couple of years, this dad seemed poised for a major turnaround. No more chronic debt, no more alcohol, coke or failed relationships. This time, the real-estate scheme, the restaurant or the soon-to-be-patented “jean stretcher” would pay off. Only it never did.

An addict, a racist, an ex-con with delusional ambition: This was John Vogel, father of Jennifer Vogel, a writer who has spent the last 10 years working for alternative weeklies much like this one in Minneapolis and Seattle. Flim-Flam Man: A True Family History is a memoir about her father, a man whose claim to fame was getting caught in the fourth-largest counterfeiting bust in U.S. history but whose legacy transcends the sensational headlines that greeted his violent death.

Vogel’s narrative begins with her father’s funeral in 1995 and then shifts between his final months as an FBI fugitive and the author’s coming-of-age story. Vogel, the author, was raised in South Dakota by her mother, who struggled to support her young family. When her mom remarries a wealthy doctor who leaves his family and degenerates into an aloof drunk, Vogel rebels in standard teen fashion: cutting school and exploiting the usual pharmaceutical suspects. When it reaches a breaking point, she flees to Minneapolis and her father.

In the big city, she comes to know her real dad, who proves to be a loving but largely incapable parent. The overarching epiphany of Vogel’s adolescence, as she recalls, is that “not a lot happens when you break the rules.” At 17, she moves out of her dad’s house and into a slummy apartment with her druggie boyfriend. Vogel’s personal narrative provides an interesting counterpoint to so much of the fear-mongering that’s spoon-fed to teens in hopes of controlling them. Vogel’s experience testifies that, like her, most “troubled” kids figure things out on their own.

Ultimately, Flim-Flam Man tells two separate stories that don’t mesh in a cohesive or meaningful way. Not knowing whether this is Jennifer’s or John’s book serves to confuse, if not confound, the reader. Also, the book suffers from the author’s lack of daddy access. Vogel admits to not having any contact with her dad during his last four years, a crucial period when, after being released from jail (he served 10 years on fraud charges), he couldn’t deal with life on the up and up. Though Vogel puts her reporting skills to good use in retracing his last years, it lacks the immediacy of the time she spent with him.

Though it’s understandable that she has mixed feelings, sometimes its manifestation is hard to stomach. For example, Vogel still seems rather proud that her dad was the “4th largest counterfeiter in US history.” In snippets, however, the author’s observations are extraordinary. Vogel is a writer possessed of an ethnographic ability to detail the significance of seemingly minor behaviors. Witness the following: “He brought everything from the Holiday station store; fishing poles, inner tubes, towels, groceries. He always chose the small bottle of ketchup, not the economy size, refusing to invest in the future.”

Being indulgent by their very nature, memoirs can suffer a host of pitfalls. Vogel dodges all of them, because she never panders for our sympathy or engages in any blame games. One only wishes that she had logged more time with the man whose complex legacy still haunts her. No doubt Jennifer Vogel wishes this, too.