Synopses & Reviews
A frank and intimate portrait of a charismatic, larger-than-life underworld figure, as told by the daughter who nearly followed in his footsteps.
"Do unto others before they do unto you," John Vogel used to advise his daughter, Jennifer. By his account, the world was a crooked place and one had to be crooked in order to survive. A lifelong criminal, John robbed banks, burned down buildings, scammed investors, plotted murder, and single-handedly counterfeited more than $20 million. He also wrote a novel, invented a "jean stretcher," baked lemon meringue pies, and arranged for ten-year-old Jennifer to see Rocky in an empty theater on Christmas Eve. In his reckless pursuit of the American Dream, he could be genuinely good. When it came time to pass his phony bills, he targeted Wal-Mart for political reasons.
In 1995, following John's arrest in what turned out to be the fourth-largest seizure of counterfeit bills in U.S. history, he managed to slip away, leaving his now grown daughter to wonder what had become of him. Framed around the six months Jennifer's father ran from the law, Flim-Flam Man vividly chronicles the police chase -- stakeouts, lie detector tests, even a segment on Unsolved Mysteries. In describing her tumultuous life with John Vogel, Jennifer deftly examines the messy, painful, and almost inescapable inheritance one generation bequeaths to the next.
"Vogel's masterful account...[w]ill haunt readers for days."
-- Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"Original, tragic, and heartbreaking in the way only true life can be."
-- Entertainment Weekly
"Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking."
-- Time Out New York
"[Vogel's] story, a dark eulogy, fascinates."
"Vogel evokes the dual nature of our intimate lives as well as the struggle between the straight and the criminal....[R]efreshingly well-paced."
-- San Francisco Chronicle
About the Author
Jennifer Vogel worked as a writer and reporter in Minneapolis for seven years before moving to Seattle, where she was editor in chief of The Stranger. She moved back to Minneapolis in 2003.
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide for Flim-Flam Man
1. Jennifer says of herself and her sister, "Dad was a mineshaft we raided for clues about ourselves" (102). Can you find evidence of her tendency to see herself in the mirror of her father throughout this memoir? What does she learn?
2. Similarly, Jennifer often worries that she is too much like her father. She lies, and remembers that he's a liar. She sets fires in the restroom, and remembers that he's an arsonist. Do you think Jennifer adopted these behaviors for the same reasons that her father did?
3. Think about the different ways John Vogel is portrayed in this book by observers other than the author, from the U.S. Marshals' description (95), to the résumé he creates for himself in Seattle (139), to the impersonation on "Unsolved Mysteries" (128). How do these contribute to your impression of John Vogel? Why does the author choose to share these descriptions with you even though she often criticizes their portrayal of her father?
4. Chapters about Jennifer's childhood are intermixed with chapters about her father's arrest, disappearance, and suicide. How does mixing the past and the present affect the telling of both tales? Do you see any parallels between the two stories?
5. Why do you think John Vogel chose to rob the bank in South Dakota? Do you think he needed money? Or do you think he needed a way to end the suspense of eluding capture, as Jennifer suspected (205)? Why else would he have chosen to make such a dramatic gesture?
6. Reading newspaper accounts of her father's story, Jennifer is painfully struck by the casual flippancy of some of the reporters (209). What guidelines do you think journalists should adhere to when covering personal tragedies such as that of John Vogel? Do you think they overstepped the boundaries of decency in this case?
7. The memoir ends with a dream Jennifer had often after her father's death (211). In the dream, she would pick up the phone, and her father would speak to her as though he were a salesman. How does this dream reflect their relationship? Do you think Jennifer knows whether her dad is a salesman, conman, or father? Do her feelings change over the course of their relationship?
8. Throughout the book, Jennifer describes many of her own failures, often revealing the distress her own behavior caused her. She rarely displays any sympathy for herself as a child in difficult circumstances, and often criticizes her interactions with her dad. How did this tone affect your reaction to her story? Did you sympathize with her? Did you see her as a victim of her father's choices or as an independent person making her own choices?
9. Do you think the other members of John's family are responsible in any way for the course his life took? His sister, Cheryl, seems to imply that they were when she guilt-trips Jennifer and Liz at his funeral (5), but his brother Tom tries to alleviate the burden they feel by saying, "Nobody could be around him" (6). How do you think Jennifer would answer this question?
10. At the beginning of the book, Jennifer describes her family by saying, "We start over and wipe slates clean. What is passed down is something nobody wants to own, so that each generation darts ahead, dodges the shadow, breaks the link, only to be gripped for all time just as our mothers and fathers tumble backward into darkness" (1). To what extent does this apply to Jennifer and her father? How did each of them manage their inheritance of family baggage?