THE DUKE OF DECEPTION: Memories of My Father by Geoffrey Wolff
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THE DUKE OF DECEPTION: Memories of My Father

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According to Geoffrey Wolff, ""my father was a bullshit artist"" and ultimately a madman--but also a charismatic free spirit, a discriminating jazz-lover, and something of a genius. According to a Wolff cousin, ""He was a gonif, a schnorrer. He was just a bum. That's all he ever was."" And according to fact, he was Arthur Samuels Wolff, ne'er-do-well son of Hartford's most prestigious Jewish doctor. But: ""My father was a Jew. This did not seem to him a good idea. . . ."" So--as Geoffrey didn't discover till adolescence and after--Arthur Wolff lived on lies: he changed his middle name to Saunders, created a Teutonic/WASP background, claimed (after a disastrous academic career of false starts at various schools) a Yale/Sorbonne education in engineering, and faked his way into various aeronautics executive jobs that he somehow filled with distinction (and rebelliousness). He also married the non-Jewish daughter of a repressive, incestuously lecherous military man, a doomed match that ended up in separation, divorce, and Geoffrey's decision to spend his teenage years with his footloose father in Seattle, Kentucky, and N.Y.--even when a rich, bossy stepmother entered the picture for a while. The younger Wolff has done a fine, bewildered, ironic job of reconstructing his father's chutzpah-tic early years. But the tone becomes more problematic as Geoffrey himself becomes the primary focus--his sexual coming-of-age (the usual, and irrelevant); the gradual reversal of father-son roles (Geoffrey took a year off from Princeton to caretake his depressed father and pay off debts); his full realization of his father's lies (George Steiner bluntly told Geoffrey, ""I'm a Jew, and so are you. Anyone can see it""); and the final break, when Arthur's scofflaw hijinks escalated into Grand Theft Auto, jail, and mental breakdown. There's a slickness in Wolff's presentation of all this that tends to mute the feelings--and an uncomfortable sense (especially when he quotes his mother) of privacy invaded, even though it's often his own. As a result, this memoir is more intriguing than affecting, but with a powerful enough central dilemma--""There was nothing to him bullies, and love""--to sustain most readers' interest right through to the sad, sour, rather artificially upbeat end.

Pub Date: Aug. 17th, 1979
ISBN: 0679727523
Publisher: Random House