Frank Goodman is the most colorful of the con artists that walk the deck of the steamboat “Fidèle” on April Fool’s Day, 1857. He emerges from the twilight in brilliant robes, gaudily dressed even for “the liberal Mississippi,” blowing a burst of “spicy tobacco smoke,” his voice “sweet as a seraph’s.” Cosmopolitan Goodman’s scarlet-accented vesture resembles a heart he’s wearing, perhaps as a trophy. For he hungers after a most delectable dish: man.
“Odd Fish!” Those are the first words spoken in Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, of one of the cosmopolitan Goodman’s caterpillar-like forebears. “Odd Fish!”: the same may be said of this book, following in the wake of Moby Dick, a smaller specimen pulled from Melville’s sea of ironic meditation, its form and function masked by symbol and satire just as the eponymous con man is costumed in his various stations and vocations.
Who is the Confidence Man? He is a variety of characters, humble and proud, all espousing the wonder working virtues of faith. Besides their wares, each offers a type of sunny optimism in their fellow beings’ intentions, the kind of idealism under which everyone’s held harmless — them included.
He is a deaf-mute in a cream-colored suit holding a slate before him on which he writes Biblical proverbs. He is perhaps a game-legged Negro beggar named Black Guinea, who describes himself as a “dog widout massa” in the first of a string of clues that there are cynics hidden among the true believers. He is a philanthropist, an herb-doctor, a company agent, all making their pitches — for shares in a stock recently ruined but imminently resurgent, for the Samaritan Pain Dissuader or the Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator, or for a charity for widows and orphans. Customers buy, and they also buy into. With each transaction, the Confidence Man grows stronger. He feeds on trust.
Then, in the very middle of the book appears the Cosmopolitan, speaking like an angel and asking, finally, for a little financial favor. At which point Melville breaks in — or seems to, as the voice of a narrator shouldn’t be confused with that of the author — and makes fun of the reader for judging the Cosmopolitan a little too out-of-this-world. Hey, this is fiction, he says. What do you expect?
More accurately, this is satire, the hardest form of literature for writer and audience. Besides its insights into the consequences of a society where everything — health, friendship, faith, wisdom — is up for sale, the book sends up writing as a con game of dubious merit. Perhaps Melville, upon the failure of Moby Dick, felt like he was losing. Instead, he may have succeeded to a fault, his powers of communication outdistancing his audience’s comprehension. Where he loses contemporary readers, the notes of cultural historian H. Bruce Franklin, which accompany the text, are helpful. They point out Melville’s Hindu allusions and his aping of Transcendentalism, which first appears as a white-gloved man equipped with a servant-steward, suggesting it’s possible “to sin by proxy.” Originally printed in a 1967 edition, Franklin’s notes now serve their own historical purpose: they come from a time, not unlike Melville’s, not unlike ours, when American precepts grated against reality. For that alone, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade shouldn’t be fodder solely for PhD candidates; the book is an enigma that still shimmers darkly on its 150th birthday.