Confidence by Rafael Frumkin

“It seems now like everything I’ve done in my life I’ve done because of love, a useless, gutting love that left me devoured from the inside.”

Fans of books exploring white-collar crime and/or conmen & scammers should definitely give Rafael Frumkin’s sophomore novel Confidence a shot. There were aspects of the storyline that reminded me of certain sections from The Goldfinch and A Beautiful Crime, a book about art ‘heist’ & queer love. While the publisher’s comparisons to The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Great Gatsby don’t quite convince me, there were moments within the narrative that had definitely had Succession vibes.
There is much to be admired in Confidence and overall I definitely liked it more than not, however, it is very much plot-driven, and I’m afraid that the fast pacing comes at the expense of the story and its characters.

In the opening pages of Confidence, we learn that our protagonist, Ezra Green, is in prison. Far from penitent, Ezra is putting his conman skills to good use as he has recruited a fellow prisoner into what I can best describe as a pyramid scheme.
He then gives us a retrospective of his life in crime, starting with the pivotal meeting of Orson, who is charismatic, conventionally attractive, and confident. The two meet as teenagers at Last Chance Camp, a place for ‘troubled’ teens. Ezra, who comes from a low-income household, ends up there after he begins selling knockoffs and other things to his peers. His parents want him to ‘straighten’ up his act, so the awful Last Chance Camp. Ezra and Orson bond very quickly, and we know from the first that Orson is undoubtedly aware of the effect and hold he has on Ezra. This unbalanced power dynamic becomes all the more glaring as the years go by.

“The rich glamorize being poor […] They think it gives you integrity or something. They think it’s like noble somehow to have been poor once. It means you’ve earned your wealth. But that’s a myth, because the poor just stay poor. No one gets rich.”

This early section exploring this period of their life is perhaps the one I found most engaging as here Frumkin maintains a good balance between plot and character development. Sadly, the following periods and years of Ezra and Orson’s lives are often presented to us in a stop-and-start fashion, so that we fast-forward over some major events or potentially interesting moments of transition in their lives & cons (rather than showing how they get from A to B, we are told that they have gone from A to B). It was a pity as I think Confidence could have benefited a lot from a slower pace, one that could have allowed for a more detailed and vivid portrayal of their life in crime.

Ezra’s compelling voice makes his narration fairly absorbing, to the point where I immediately found myself making excuses and exemptions for his criminal activities and the way he is complicit in and/or the instigator of some very sh*tty behaviour & dealings. Even so, I would have liked for his narration to provide us with some more moments of introspection, rather than consisting so heavily of him giving us summaries of his and Orson’s various schemes or detailing certain aspects of their cons.

I also thought that the narrative could have done with more tension and that if Ezra and Orson
’s relationship had remained the focus of the story it would have resulted in a more charged atmosphere. Orson’s had the potential to be the type of character who is a bit cypher and leaves you wanting to know more about the way his mind operates (like Ripley). But even when Orson is making an on-the-page appearance, he never captured my attention. I struggled to understand why so many would fall for his manipulations as most of the stuff he says is flimsy & kind-of-generic. I also don’t understand why his presence is so often relegated off page so that I sometimes even forgot of his existence until Ezra reminds us that he worships him and is wholly devoted to him.
The side characters were fairly one-note and often come across as caricatures of rich & otherwise privileged people…which weren’t particularly funny or cutting.

While the details and information we are giving about ‘Synthesizing’ and ‘Bliss-Mini’, which are at the heart of Ezra and Orson’s latest & biggest con, did not fascinate me all that much, I did find their earlier scams fairly gripping. In their early cons we can feel their titillation and excitement, that rush of adrenaline at getting away with it and ‘sticking it to the man’ and the ‘blood suits’ (white wealthy men). As the years go by however it becomes apparent that Orson is never really satisfied, that he is always on the lookout for the next big thing, and even when the two begin the whole ‘Bliss-Mini’, he still doesn’t seem to have found ‘it’. Ezra, whose criminal activities were borne out of financial necessities, only wants to be with Orson, which also means following him into his increasingly risky and unethical endeavours. As the two expand their operation and make more and more money, we have to question what happened to their earlier motivations, if they have become the people they had set out to take down, and the fallacies of the American Dream.

I liked that despite their appearances & first impressions, the author doesn’t push Ezra and Orson into that tired introvert/extrovert mould. While it is clear that Orson is using Ezra, we can see that his manipulations are not wholly devoid of fondness. Yet, I did think that their dynamic could have been portrayed with more depth and nuance. I wanted to ‘feel’ more but was often left rather unmoved by what I was reading. We are told that Ezra is hopelessly in love with Orson, but I couldn’t quite ‘feel’ that. More emotion, more angst even, would have taken their supposedly intense relationship to the next level. It’s a pity as I tend to love books that combine the kind of atmosphere & aesthetics you would find in a psychological thriller or crime novel with a tale queer unrequited love (Giovanni’s Room, The House of Stairs, An Ocean Without A Shore, Apartment).
While the characters populating the rarefied sphere our mc’s come to move in where fairly one-dimensional, the social commentary is not, as there are many scenes or observations where the author is able to delve into themes such as privilege, class, and capitalism. I really liked the way the casual way in which Ezra and Orson’s sexualities are depicted, without shying away from the realities of being gay/queer/bi in a heteronormative society.

Still, even if I didn’t always like how the story was executed I did find Frumkin’s premise & prose to have a lot of promise and they are an an undoubtedly talented author. I will definitely read whatever they write next…

grazie to the publisher for granting me an arc ❤

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

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