Forget Las Vegas: you’ll never even beat the midway at the local carnival, says Fenton, who worked the circuit as a high-schooler.
Fenton went on to be a reporter for The National Enquirer and to write a couple of humor books, but in the 1960s he was a bright kid with an unhappy home life. That made him an easy mark for schoolmate Jackie Brown, a student of the art of the swindle who declared, “ . . . every game on the midway . . . is all about science and the unchangeable laws of nature.” Impressed by Fenton’s ease with math, Brown took the boy under his wing and offered a tutorial in the ways of gambling. Fenton took to this line of work, which opened for a shy kid a world of thrills and, not incidentally, sex. Limning numerous episodes of deceit with the immediacy and clarity of a pure raconteur, he tells of moving up through the carny ranks from the floating-duck games to the genuine gambling venues. Carnies are as ready to ding their coworkers as they are the folks at the show, he notes; he cheated his boss for the same reason his boss had cheated him: because “as a general rule any carny who wasn’t an ignorant fool simply held out his rightful percentage, the one that God had ordained when he’d written the chapter on carnies in the Holy Bible.” Eventually, the author came to realize how easy it was to become “an asshole carny,” always ready to shaft the next character with too loose a grip on the weekly earnings. A metaphorical shoot-out ensued with his mentor, then Fenton headed off to the noble world of the University of Michigan. Well, not really. A week into the first semester, he again heard the call to the midway. From there it was an obvious next step to the tabloids.
The strange, dark side of life, but a very real milieu.