Book Review by Raymond M. Wong
Wolff, Geoffrey. The Duke of Deception. New York: Random House, 1979. Print.
In this memoir, Geoffrey Wolff, writes an unflinchingly honest portrayal of growing up with his father, a man who goes through life duping people into extending him credit in order to bask in a state of temporary luxury, only to have it all come tumbling down like a house of cards, because it’s never enough. Once the bills come due and the repossessions begin, the “Duke” can only haul himself and his family out of town in pursuit of the next target of deception.
Wolff describes his grandfather, a doctor, who tries to make up for the lack of time with his son by showering him with material possessions. This hints at the motivation behind Duke Wolff’s addiction to extravagance, an addiction the man goes to great lengths to feed.
Duke Wolff turns away from himself, his identity, one he dislikes so much that he fashions a new one, in order to become somebody else. The “Duke” doesn’t want to be Jewish, so he transforms into a gentile. He doesn’t accept his own failure in school, so he fabricates a background of graduating from Yale. He doesn’t have the credentials to obtain employment, so he creates them in a resume that lands him work. Life for Duke Wolff is one big shell game, and he is adept at avoiding the mundane day-to-day responsibilities of being an ordinary husband and father.
Geoffrey Wolff gives an account of a boy, who because he is an innocent and believing child, buys into his father’s deceptions. Then in the course of time, the boy starts to question the reality his father has taken such great pains to craft. The beauty of this book is the way the narrator slowly unveils the truth behind his father’s lies through the eyes of a son who starts to see beyond the facade.
The book is an exploration of a father and a family, an attempt to understand a man’s inexplicable actions, and in so doing, to come to terms with a reality he lived through.
The author exhibits a wry humor by showing how people’s actions are in conflict with their words. An example is a quote from his mother about Duke: “ … But I never loved him. The act of making love, for example, I did not enjoy. So he probably didn’t, either.” Wolff then writes, “From some joyless union, a month after my parents were married, I was conceived.”
Wolff also displays an originality of language which is quaint, entertaining, and fits the tone of the book. A few examples: “…they were as close as close can be to flat broke.” “…he was fired for absenteeism, for which read hangovers.” “…it became evident that Duke’s deliverance to Number One Easy Street was to be delayed.”
This book is an engrossing story of a son’s struggle to comprehend his father’s life, and through their common thread, he embarks on his own journey of self-discovery.