Synopses & Reviews
The year is 1963, the setting is small-town Michigan. At age fifteen, Peter Fenton is a gawky math whiz schoolboy with a dissatisfied mother, a father who drinks himself to foolishness, and no chance whatsoever with girls. That's when he meets Jackie Barron.
Jackie is the unlikely progeny of Double-O and Vera, professional grifters running a third-rate traveling carnival, and he's been part of the family business since he started earning his keep as the World's Youngest Elephant Trainer. Jackie is a smooth-talking teenage carnie with his own Thunderbird, and with wisdom beyond his years.
Jackie shares Pete's way with numbers, and he has a proposition. They'll start a rigged casino in Jackie's basement and take their classmates for thousands of dollars. Pete hesitates, but not for very long. Two years later, he's working joints for the Barrons' Party Time Shows, wearing sharkskin suits and alligator shoes, and relieving the public of its hard-earned cash. He learns to hold his own with veteran con men who have nicknames like the Ghost, Horserace Harry, and Talking Tony, and colorful personalities to match. This is the world of the Alibi and the Hanky Pank, of Flatties and the mark. Amazingly, Pete Fenton has never been more at home.
But in this strange new world with its topsy-turvy code of ethics, where leaving a mark without a dollar for gas is outlawed while cheating a best friend is par for the course, the tension between teacher and student grows until Pete finds himself attempting the ultimate challenge: to out-con his mentor.
Eyeing the Flash is a fascinating insider's view of the carnival underworld -- the cons, the double-dealing, the quick banter, and, ofcourse, the easy money. The story of a shy middle-class kid turned first-class huckster, Peter Fenton's coming-of-age memoir is highly unorthodox, and utterly compelling.
"Eyeing the Flash
is shot through with rue and amazement. Welcome, in brief, to adulthood, like the midway itself...[a world] of flashing lights, pounding music, cheap thrills and even cheaper suits, not to mention deceit, perishable pleasures and no curfews."
-- Lee K. Abbott, The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
"Mr. Fenton describes his transformation from high school nerd to midway con artist with great comic gusto, in the tart, cynical tone one might expect of someone who made a living taking nickels and dimes from small children at the duck-pond game. 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, where human beings come in only two varieties: 'marks,' or suckers, and the wise guys who divest them of their cash.... The elite flatties could pick the pockets of their marks and still leave them laughing in wonderment. Mr. Fenton just might have shown them a new trick in this hilarious, twisted coming-of-age story."
-- William Grimes, The New York Times
"An engrossing read...In depicting his eccentric family, the author's wit crackles."
"A contemporary carnival classic in the vein of Nell Stroud's Josser
and Howard Bone's Side Show: My Life with Geeks, Freaks & Vagabonds in the Carny Trade."
-- Library Journal
Set against the hurly-burly atmosphere of the carnival midway, this wryly humorous memoir tells of Fenton's transformation from shy, awkward teen to smooth-talking professional grifter.
The year is 1963, the setting small-town Michigan. Pete Fenton is just another well-mannered math student until he meets Jackie Barron, a teenage grifter who introduces him to the carnival underworld -- and lures him with the cons, the double-dealing, and, most of all, the easy money. The memoir of a shy middle-class kid turned first-class huckster, Eyeing the Flash is highly unorthodox, and utterly compelling.
About the Author
Peter Fenton served for fifteen years as a tabloid reporter for the National Enquirer and is the author of two humor books, Truth or Tabloid? and I Forgot to Wear Underwear on a Glass-Bottom Boat. He lives in Eugene, Oregon.
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide for Eyeing the Flash
My name is Peter Fenton and I approved this Reader's Guide.
To the students among you assigned this book as part of your required reading, I pray it served as a sturdy beer coaster. To those pleasure-readers who self-administered the Reader's Guide in the comforts of bed, is it any wonder you're always tense? Hopefully, you weren't reading the questions aloud and keeping your bed partner awake. Or, if you live alone, the people in the next apartment.
In any event, if you've found your way to this part of the book, you're probably curious about what happened to the carnies in subsequent years. Unfortunately, I know very little. Carnies, especially those who go only by nicknames, aren't much for keeping in touch.
I did receive one surprise phone call shortly after Eyeing the Flash was reviewed in The New York Times. Didn't recognize the voice at first. And when the caller said his name was Jackie Barron, I nearly hung up the phone because he was the third person to do so since the book had been published. Only the day before, a woman who really, really believed her husband was Jackie Barron had hounded me with phone calls. Problem was, she lived in Colorado and, as it turned out, didn't have a husband at all. Guess she'd tired of phoning George Lucas about Luke Skywalker, her son.
But the longer I listened to this guy, the more I realized he was legit -- the real Jackie Barron was on the phone. His speech patterns were just as I'd written. Despite thirty years or so without contact, I'd nailed his "voice" in the book.
Had he read it? Not yet. But he'd ordered a dozen copies.
What was Jackie up to? Well, after Party Time Shows closed down for a variety of reasons, he'd earned an M.B.A. Subsequently, he'd passed his C.P.A. exams and had gone to work for one of the Big Eight accounting firms. Right now, Jackie conducted small-business seminars in association with a major Michigan university, using his carnival background as part of his pitch.
Jackie had sad news about the Fireman. He'd died after flourishing for years as a fireworks salesman in the Deep South. Jackie was hazy about how the other carnies had fared.
A few weeks later, Jackie posted an online review of Eyeing the Flash that said, in part, "What Peter Fenton wrote is 95% true. How do I know? I am Jackie Barron. The 5% that I disagree with could be due to my memory, Peter's poetic license, or the 'suits' at Simon and Schuster."
The adult Jackie and I have yet to meet in person and perhaps never will. But I'll always be grateful to him for helping to extricate me from the ranks of ulcer-getters.
Can you also benefit from Jackie's sage wisdom and guidance? To quote him again, "The only way you will go from a mark to a carnie is to buy this book." And you've already done that.
Questions for Discussion:
1. After Pete discusses his father's drunkenness with his mother, he says, "I agonized about not knowing how to extricate myself from the game that they'd created and had trained me so well to play." Discuss the irony inherent in the fact that Pete frees himself from his family's game by entering a life of gaming. How do games function throughout the novel? Who plays with whom?
2. Both Pete and Jackie dislike their families and their ways of life. How does each one interact with and rebel against his respective family? In what ways are their family situations similar or different? How do their parents propel each of them into a new way of life?
3. Money is a motivating factor throughout the book and underscores Pete and Jackie's entire relationship. Discuss pivotal moments in the book for the two boys in their sometimes shared, sometimes individual pursuit of cash. Regarding some of those moments, and their entire relationship, who do you think profits more from their relationship, financially or otherwise?
4. Pete often supplements his everyday life with elaborate fantasies. How does he imagine himself, his family, his relationship with Mandy, and his success as a con artist? Are his fantasies ever realized? Can you think of instances in which he discovers that reality is better than fantasy?
5. At first, Pete balks at the idea of H.O.ing -- holding out -- money from Jackie, even though he has no problem cheating a mark. Why does his attitude change? Consider the play between honesty and deceit throughout the book and discuss the code of ethics for carnies. How do the rules vary or remain consistent in different circumstances? Do you think that the ethics -- or lack thereof -- that Pete and Jackie learned in the carnival world affected them after they left it?
6. Did the way in which the author described his experience with cons and deceit give you an impression of how he feels about it now? Is he nostalgic, ashamed, amused, regretful, or something else? Are there any passages that hint at his current attitude toward his former life?
7. As Pete moves up in the carnival ranks from the Balloon Dart/Duck Pond to the Flat Store, he constantly vacillates between self-doubt and self-confidence. Think about the instances in which Pete is overwhelmed with uncertainty, and contrast them with instances in which he is indignant about Jackie's interference and assistance. What are some of the reasons he needs to prove himself to Jackie and exert his independence?
8. After the incident in which everyone believes that Dinkie's wife has run him over, Jackie briefly lets down his guard and tells Pete that he thinks of him as a true friend. Do you think that is how Jackie really thinks of Pete? Jackie provides Pete with many things: money, girls, clothes, opportunity; what does he get in return?
9. The midway of Party Time Shows has a well-established hierarchy, and Pete moves through all its levels. What does he learn at each stage of his carnival career? What does he learn from the people at each level, such as Dinkie Barnes, the Whippers, the Fireman, and the Ghost?
10. Pulling off the Georgia Gig Shot represented a turning point for Pete. How does that success change the way he views himself and the way others view him? How does his position on the midway change afterward?
11. Because the book is narrated from Pete's first-person point of view, we identify with him and see things from his perspective. In spite of that, did you ever find yourself sympathizing with the mark and not the con man? Has reading this book altered your views of gambling or your own susceptibility?
12. How are women portrayed in the book? Think about Vera, Mrs. Fenton, Mandy, and the female marks Pete encounters. Why do you think so few of the sideshow operators are women?
13. Jackie is many things to Pete: friend, manipulator, employer, teacher, mentor. Consider the ways his relationship with Pete fluctuates throughout the book and how he alternately helps and takes advantage of Pete. In the end, do you think his overall influence on Pete is positive or negative?
14. Pete ultimately bests Jackie by cheating and out-conning him in the Bust-Out. Did you admire Pete's methods and his triumph over his friend and mentor? What did he gain in the competition other than money? What did he lose?
15. While working on the midway, Pete rarely looks ahead to the future beyond the next mark, the next day's take, or the next town. Why do you think that is? Were you surprised when he decided to leave Party Time Shows or when he abruptly left college after such a short time? How do you think the pace of life on the midway might affect the way he lived the rest of his life?