The Ballad of the Flim-Flam Man (1965)

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

A poet and writer of many short stories, including the ones using the “Flim Flam Yarn” title, Guy Owen was launched into fame with the comical and popular The Ballad of the Flim-Flam Man.

The backdrop for this novel is fictitious Cape Fear County, a place similar to Owen’s childhood experiences in Bladen County, North Carolina. Like many Southern writers, Owen uses his own past and surroundings to provide material for his fiction. Recall William Faulkner’s use of Yoknapatawpha County, a fictitious location based on the real Lafayette County, Mississippi. The result is that the fiction has a local flavor, describing the sights, sounds, and folkways of a certain place. Yet authors discuss issues with moral complexity that transcend regions. Sometimes to write about the abstract, one must be familiar with the particular.

The 1965 novel was my introduction to Owen. More exactly, it was the 1967 film of the same name starring George C. Scott. (In the movie, there is an unforgettable and zany car chase that wreaks havoc on a small, North Carolina town.)  

The main character, Mordecai Jones, M.B.S., C.S., D.D., brags about his self-styled, advanced degrees that stand for “Master of Back-Stabbing, Cork-Screwing, and Dirty-Dealing.”  Simply put, he is a con-artist. The older drifter travels the Southeast, swindling people out of their cash via various games of chance and stealing — excuse me — borrowing cars. 

Although Jones claims to have once circulated among big-time and influential people, “dukes and bookies,” to name two examples, the nickel-and-dime swindler mentors an AWOL serviceman and aspiring country singer, Curley Treadaway, and tells him early on: “You can’t cheat an honest man.” A slick talker can only accomplish so much, Jones advises; it takes two to negotiate a deal. One must tap into mankind’s natural greediness: “Greed’s my line, lad” And fourteen-carat ignorance,” he tells Curley. “You might say I’m one who puts his trust in the taint of corruption in the human heart.” With that in mind, Mordecai lures others into thinking that they can cheat him or Curley, and then he dupes the locals and moves on to his next target.  As they avoid capture from the law and retaliation from former victims all across eastern North Carolina, Curley eventually reveals that there is some good in people.

Owen has received praise for the folksy narrative of two bungling con-artists traveling to and fro in rural North Carolina. Although the work is reminiscent of a Mark Twain novel, other reviews declare that Owen was unable to make the characters believable. Still others have criticized the use or overuse of dialect. Those parts, however, are what makes the novel charming.