Bookmarks Issue: 

The Education of a Carnival Con Artist

A-EyeingFlashIn 1963, 15-year-old math whiz Peter Fenton blew off a promising high school football career when he met Jackie Barron, a professional grifter and elephant trainer with a traveling carnival. An illegal basement casino enticed Fenton into Barron’s life—and into a maelstrom of chicanery and greed. Fenton soon joined the Barrons’ Party Time Shows, a fabulously crooked carnival, and became a huckster in his own right. Strangers, friends—it didn’t matter whom he swindled. After all, "there was plenty more money to be made." But as Fenton climbed the ropes, he learned some rather unusual life lessons.
Simon & Schuster. 256 pages. $23. ISBN: 0743258541

Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] likable, illuminating history of his education as a carnival con artist in the late ‘60s. … Eyeing the Flash is a pleasurable con and offers plenty of flash." David Walton

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s a great read, the sort of book where everyone talks in a fast-paced patter that makes them sound, in your mind’s ear, like a 45-year-old character actor from the Bronx. … Fenton excels, really excels, at scene-setting. He’s a master of detail." M.E. Russell

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"A cross between Ferris Bueller and William S. Burroughs, he regards with a cold, delighted eye the weakness, greed and duplicity of the carnival world. … Most of the incidents, and the dialogue, sound about 40 percent too good to be true, and there are puzzling inconsistencies." William Grimes

Critical Summary

Fenton (Truth or Tabloid?) came of age at the carnival. When he left his small-town, middle-class Michigan home for life on the road when he was 17, he began his transformation from math geek to con artist (and eventual reporter for The National Enquirer). Critics agree that Fenton tells his tale of carnival life (or, as The Oregonian notes, "a sort of evil Horatio Alger story") with humor and insight. Who else would admit to cheating small children out of their last nickels? They also praise Fenton’s polished writing and fast-paced, twisted dialogue and scenes. A few question the full veracity of the story, but never mind. Fenton never fails to entertain—and teach us a thing or two about a con man’s tricks.

Supplemental Reading

The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man | David Maurer (1940): Maurer collected what had been passed on by oral tradition: the art of the early 20th-century con. Required reading for anyone who enjoyed the movie The Sting.