The Duke of Deception, by Geoffrey Wolff

The Duke of Deception

I’ve written about both the book and movie versions of This Boy’s Life, and written highly favorably of both, maybe the movie even a little more so.

This Boy’s Life is the autobiographical story of Toby Wolff, focused especially on his adolescent and teen years. During this period, he lives with his divorced mother Rosemary, at first in nomadic fashion as she bounces from one bad news guy to another, and from one job opportunity or get-rich-quick scheme to another, and then later in a more settled way when she marries the evil stepfather Dwight in small town Washington.

You pick up a little bit, though very little, about the immediate family Rosemary and Toby left behind, as unlike Rosemary and Dwight they were very much bit players in Toby’s life during those years. The father, nicknamed Duke, and apparently wealthy, was evidently at least emotionally if not physically abusive toward his spouse. So while it’s true that when Toby’s life deteriorates under the tyranny of Dwight he at times starts to romanticize the past and dream of returning to his father, or better yet reuniting the whole family, you get the sense that Rosemary probably had good reason to leave, and that a reconciliation, were it to happen, would not have a high likelihood of going well.

So Duke is some vague, partly mythic, rich guy who might one day save Toby from his nightmare, but probably not.

There’s an older brother too, but we learn even less about him. To the extent I remember anything about him from the book I have an impression of a kind of prep school snob, aloof in his attitude toward Toby—kind of a jerk I suppose, but there’s so little said about him that that might not be a justified inference.

Though the story is told in an honest enough way to reveal no shortage of faults in Toby and Rosemary, I ended up seeing them both as underdogs worth rooting for. I especially developed a respect for Rosemary. As erratic as she could occasionally be, her efforts to safeguard the survival and dignity of herself and her child in a time and place when the deck was very much stacked against a single mother like her were close to heroic. As far as Toby goes, I found him more likable than not, and I was inclined to mostly—not totally—excuse his misdeeds on the grounds that, one, he was just a kid, and, two, he was really in a terrible situation with that stepfather.

Toby Wolff went on to have a highly successful career as a writer and academic, despite that decidedly unpromising childhood.

Well, it turns out—and I didn’t know this until fairly recently—the brother, Geoffrey Wolff, wrote his own memoir of childhood, and in fact it came out five years before This Boy’s Life. Geoffrey stayed with his father after the divorce—or actually was with the mother and Toby briefly, and then returned to the father—and so the book is nearly the mirror image of This Boy’s Life.

The difference is that the focus is a bit more autobiographical in This Boy’s Life. This Boy’s Life is the story of Toby, with Rosemary as a major character, and Duke and Geoffrey as very minor characters. The Duke of Deception is the story of Duke, with Geoffrey as a major character, Rosemary as somewhere between a major and minor character, and Toby as a minor to very minor character.

The Toby we get to know in This Boy’s Life is for the most part not recognizable in The Duke of Deception. This is even more true in This Boy’s Life of the Geoffrey we get to know in The Duke of Deception.

Geoffrey Wolff himself went on to have a writing career not unlike his brother. Both have written both fiction and nonfiction. In terms of fiction, Toby (or Tobias as he seems to mostly be known as an adult) writes primarily short stories and Geoffrey writes novels, while in terms of nonfiction both rely heavily on autobiography and memoirs. Both have had academic careers. Geoffrey apparently has done more newspaper writing and editing, including at the Washington Post. Tobias is probably modestly more acclaimed, but Geoffrey is no slouch. The Duke of Deception itself was runner up for a Pulitzer.

It’s amazing that two writers of that stature came from this same dysfunctional family (because it turns out that the Duke side of the family was at least as much of a mess as the Rosemary side of the family after the split). It would be less surprising had they instead ended up spending most of their lives in prison.

After becoming familiar with the Wolff family from This Boy’s Life, The Duke of Deception is certainly a good way to fill in gaps. (That is, if, like me, you read This Boy’s Life first; as noted, The Duke of Deception actually preceded it.)

What I found is that the vague impressions I had of Duke and Geoffrey, especially Duke, were highly inaccurate.

First off, Duke was not some East Coast, Ivy League, snooty rich guy. He was a con man, a mooch, a phony, who occasionally was rich or near-rich, usually carried himself as if he were rich or near-rich, but as often as not was in fact barely able to keep his head above water.

He had the guts to try to bullshit just about anyone about just about anything, and when it failed, or it succeeded temporarily but eventually he was found out, he just moved on.

He simply had no conscience about certain deceptive types of behavior, like it was all just a game, and insofar as people were hurt by his shenanigans, he wasn’t going to feel bad for playing better than them.

There were certain patterns to his deceit, certain recurring behaviors.

One, he sought, and sometimes obtained, jobs for which he was utterly unqualified, on utterly false pretenses. He simply lied about whatever he felt he needed to lie about—education, work experience, skills—in order to increase his chances of getting the job. He was a smart enough guy, was enough of a people person, and had enough managerial instinct, that it was not uncommon that if he conned his way into a job in that manner that he’d do reasonably well at it, more so if it were some white collar job that had to do with manipulating people rather than a job that required some more concrete skill. But he never kept a job very long even when in a sense he was reasonably good at it, because he always pushed and pushed to see how much he could get away with (in terms of things like showing up for work only if and when he felt like it), and sooner or later he crossed the line and was canned.

Two, he had zero impulse control when it came to purchases, and simply bought anything and everything he wanted. On credit that is, since even during the times he had a decent income (and usually he didn’t), he went through his pay as soon as he obtained it, and just kept on spending anyway. He found that he could bluff his way into a large amount of credit as easily or more easily than a small amount of credit. Just act like a rich person, rather than a poor person nervously taking that one small shaky step too far beyond his means. So dress well, stride into the jewelry store with an air of confidence, and choose one—or several—of their most expensive items. Who but a rich guy would do that? As soon as word got around and he couldn’t get any more credit, or the bill collectors became too aggressive, possibly involving the law, he absconded to the next town.

Three, all or almost all of his personal relationships were primarily useful to him as opportunities to borrow money. He was always hitting up friends, acquaintances, and family members for money. It isn’t that he got in trouble one or two or three times and desperately sought a bailout from those in his life who might care enough to help him out, like happens to people who have unexpected massive medical bills, are unemployed for a long period of time despite their best efforts, or even get in over their head gambling; it was his lifestyle to treat everyone around him as his personal ATM. Some turned him down, some loaned him money and broke from him when he neglected to ever pay it back, and some loaned him whatever amount was modest enough that they didn’t much care if they weren’t paid back. It was all the same to him. Whatever response he got he just kept trying, and he took what he could get.

It’s not that he totally lacked redeeming qualities. At times he apparently could be a fun and interesting guy to be around. He was a “go for the gusto” kind of person who wanted to experience life to the fullest and have adventures, and all else being equal that’s an admirable trait. In certain limited ways in certain relationships, including with Geoffrey, he even had an odd kind of integrity and honesty, which he expected to be reciprocated.

Indeed, Geoffrey paints him as a basically good-hearted person who had much that you would want in a father, to go along with the crookedness.

I had trouble seeing him quite so sympathetically. I’ve known people, even had friends, who lived a fundamentally dishonest life like that, victimizing people to get ahead, and it’s not like I completely wrote them off as human beings, yet at the same time that aspect of their behavior always came between us. If they couldn’t see that there was something importantly wrong with their general approach to life, there was a limit to how close we could ever be.

I sense that Geoffrey’s ambivalent attitude toward his father is something like 60% lovable rogue and 40% despicable crook. My reaction to him is more like 20% lovable rogue and 80% despicable crook.

Toby starts his account of his childhood and family life shortly after Rosemary and Duke break up, which is why Duke and Geoffrey are in it so little. Geoffrey includes in his account a fair amount from the years when the family was still intact, so we get a decent amount of Rosemary. And the way she is portrayed here doesn’t change the feelings I developed about her from This Boy’s Life. She’s undoubtedly flawed, but on the whole I find her an admirable and likable human being.

I never fully warmed to Geoffrey himself in reading The Duke of Deception. There’s nothing I strongly dislike about him, and I respect his honesty and his attempts to present a very complex person who was such an emotionally powerful figure in his life in a fair and accurate fashion. Yet for some intangible reason I didn’t connect with him as well as I connected with Toby in This Boy’s Life, even though their behavior is not all that different as modestly to moderately messed up kids who dabble in delinquency in their youth.

I’m not articulate enough about such things to be able to properly justify it, but I found Geoffrey’s writing to be competent but to not flow as well for me as Toby’s.

There’s no question The Duke of Deception held my interest, and I do recommend it. But I wonder just how interesting I would have found it if I hadn’t had a pre-existing curiosity about the central characters due to my familiarity with This Boy’s Life.

I like Rosemary a lot more than Duke and find her comparably interesting, I like Toby a little more than Geoffrey, This Boy’s Life has the fascinating villain Dwight while The Duke of Deception lacks such a figure (though arguably Duke himself fills that role), and This Boy’s Life is maybe slightly better written than The Duke of Deception. So if one could only read one of the two, my clear choice would be This Boy’s Life. But better would be to read both, as both are worthwhile in their way.

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