Bunkmates Turned Scam Artists Take Silicon Valley for a Ride

CONFIDENCE, by Rafael Frumkin

From the outset of Rafael Frumkin’s novel “Confidence,” we are unmistakably in the late aughts. We hear of the Iraq war and Halliburton, Reddit and 4Chan, of crypto derivatives and Kanye West’s “Graduation” and a culture of self-enrichment so endemic to the American economy that hardly anyone was meaningfully held accountable for its implosion. Grift, emerging from economic desperation but more commonly from sheer greed, is the defining spirit of the time; if the glut of scammers and fabulists in fiction and on our television screens is any indication, it remains so.

Here, in the drainage of the American dream, we meet Ezra Green, a gangly, snaggletoothed teenager who’s been shipped off to Last Chance Camp, a correctional facility in Colorado — on scholarship, he adds, to distinguish himself from the wealthier delinquents merely eluding juvie. He winds up there because of a “hustle,” as he describes it, which involved selling his classmates what they believed to be coke or molly but was actually Sudafed ground with sea salt. When Ezra’s not running laps or holding a plank at the behest of an ex-Navy SEAL, he imagines himself “a saint surrounded by sinners,” like Alyosha in “The Brothers Karamazov.”

Ezra is a clever narrator, brought to life by Frumkin in a knowing and well-paced first-person that gives “Confidence” the propulsive thrum of a tell-all. Docile and self-conscious, he’s not motivated by vanity or fame. If anything, Ezra wants to disappear entirely, as he does into a fake social media account where he poses as an attractive and self-possessed guy’s girl he calls Ingrid. It’s Orson Ortman, Ezra’s bunkmate at camp, for whom he reinvents himself as an almost outlandishly savvy grifter.

But rarely do grifters act alone, or purely in self-interest. The disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes was abetted in her billion-dollar fraud by Sunny Balwani, her lover and more worldly co-conspirator. And Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley was compelled as much by his sublimated sexual attraction to Dickie Greenleaf as by his desire to inhabit Dickie’s charmed life. Frumkin seems to have been inspired in parts by each, and what Ezra lacks of Ripley’s charisma and Holmes’s hubris, Orson makes up for with good looks and slinky charm.

But those qualities, too, register portentously; readers of gay fiction, from Oscar Wilde and E.M. Forster to, more recently, Alan Hollinghurst and Andre Aciman, will recognize in Ezra and Orson’s friendship the precariously cultish appeal that a handsome, swaggering man, of indeterminate placement on the Kinsey scale, exerts on a queer boy starved for attention and sex.

Together, they sell contraband at the camp, pre-rolls and pocketknives and Adderall. And Ezra falls in love with Orson, describing him in the kind of rapturous, faintly resentful terms with which queer boys often render the objects of their affections. “He was encyclopedic, terminally curious,” Ezra recalls. “He was too important for me, too intelligent.” To observe Orson playing soccer on the campgrounds, he says, “was like watching a falling star rocket effortlessly through the sky.”

Once Ezra and Orson leave Colorado, they commiserate about the iniquities of capitalism and screen-print go-girl maxims and wine-mom proverbs on T-shirts to sell to wealthy white women, a demographic they earmark for their next con. “Maybe you could sell them snake oil,” Ezra tells Orson, like an impish associate nourishing a boss’s ego.

Their idea is a nerve-stimulating helmet called the “Bliss-Mini,” promising happiness and good vibes with the “soothing effects of placebo technology,” Ezra jokes, belying his contempt for the sort of customer who’d fall for it. NuLife, as their company is soon branded, calls to mind the wonder drug that wards off “morbid” shame in Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” except bliss is administered by “transcranial magnetic stimulation,” or sometimes through an anesthetizing, hands-on voodoo routine called Synthesis, at which Orson is especially gifted.

Frumkin shrewdly telegraphs their rise as a kind of 21st-century Silicon Valley farce. Ezra and Orson buy a discounted patent from a Stanford grad student too drunk to do business; they raise seed money from an investor developing war drones in a fictional South American dictatorship.

That Ezra suffers from glaucoma is a rather on-the-nose metaphor for his moral blindness. But we know where things are headed; the inglorious ends of a long con are often more predictable than they are narratively satisfying.

More interesting, to both Frumkin and the reader, is the fate of Ezra and Orson’s relationship. Bliss, of course, can’t be administered by a magnet, though one might reasonably expect to achieve it when getting filthy rich with a lover. Except, in “Confidence,” money pulls our Thelma and Louise farther apart. “Maybe it would make me a better person to be regretful,” Ezra admits. “But it would make me an even better person to love and be loved.”

So while Ezra is busy peddling happiness to others, he himself falls prey to a familiar con in the canon of queer literature: the conditional affections of a straight man.

Jake Nevins is the digital editor at Interview Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and other publications.

CONFIDENCE | By Rafael Frumkin | 320 pp. | Simon & Schuster | $27.99

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