Rafael Frumkin’s novel “Confidence,” on the surface, contains all of my special interests: messy relationship drama, multi-level marketing scams and a not-so-subtle critique of Scientology. I have spent hours upon hours watching YouTube essayists dissect all the most popular, thinly disguised pyramid schemes that your annoying coworker or acquaintance from high school joined. In the end, “Confidence” was so much more.
Frumkin weaves a sharply intelligent story around the makings of a con man: Ezra Green is a smart boy with a degenerative eye disease who is frustrated with the struggles of poverty. While his parents see “his way out” as getting a good education through scholarships to a wealthy private school, Ezra sees another way: with money. Performing scams and selling fake drugs at his school earn him a ticket to the “Last Chance Camp.”
At Last Chance, readers may recognize all the hallmark signs of the troubled teen industry. Mostly wealthy white kids in trouble with the law are given another way out: doing hard labor in the desert under the eyes of a former military officer and a current preacher. It is here that Ezra meets Orson, another scholarship boy attending the camp, and they use contraband like joints and Adderall to raise thousands of dollars off the backs of their much richer campmates.
For many years, Orson and Ezra are inseparable, committing multiple schemes and scams to raise money, all the while complaining to each other about the rich elite. They become romantically involved but never to a close enough degree for Ezra, who not only craves physicality but also for Orson to say the three magic words that he never does.
After manipulating their way into a hotel for the elite, they are soon proselytizing about the scam “Synthesis” to a group of wealthy white women. Ezra claims, “After Synthesis, you’re left with the memory and none of the pain.” Orson uses his good looks, charm and some hypnosis techniques to part older women from their money and book speaking engagements. “Synthesis” is nothing but a little cranial pressure and the power of suggestion; Orson convinces the captive audience that they can forget about all their insecurities. Ezra uses his own smarts to convince a Stanford student — notably a man of color — to create a piece of junk science called the “Bliss Machine” to sell.
Through a series of increasingly shady business techniques, Ezra and Orson orchestrate a business takeover to take the Bliss Machine and their sham company “Nu-Life” public. The shadiness only increases as the company’s profits do, over the course of years devolving into a multi-national cult that is a mix of pyramid schemes and Scientology.
As Ezra and Orson’s relationship deteriorates, I examine their relationship just as much as Ezra does. Ezra ignores his worsening vision for years as he focuses on Nu-Life and Orson specifically, blind to anything else both literally and metaphorically. At the end of the day, it is only to his own detriment. He is threatened by anyone Orson pays attention to, especially an actress who is a cross between Emma Chamberlin and Allison Mack, while Ezra loses himself in strangers, hoping Orson will come back to him.
It was initially very difficult for me to read this book. Ezra criticizes whiteness as if he’s apart from it, while making comments about a Brown man’s “poodle-like” hair or brushing off and ignoring women around him, saying they look like trolls. Ezra and Orson consistently mock whiteness and talk about how they want to help the working class, lamenting the trappings of capitalism. At the same time, they ultimately end up hurting people of color, women in their sphere of influence and people in the global south when they expand internationally.
Women of color work as servers, unpaid of course, at the initial Synthesis events. They pay the Asian man pennies on the dollar in order to steal the patent of the Bliss Machine from him. They bury MeToo allegations made against Orson for the sake of the company.
To his credit, Orson acknowledges at Last Chance that the only reason he isn’t in juvie is because he is white. On the other hand, Ezra only has his whiteness confronted on stage when a powerful man in a South American fictional company says, “No one will shoot at you, Ezra, okay? Nobody wants to kill a white person, especially not an American one.” It takes hundreds of pages for Ezra’s whiteness to be confirmed because it is absent from his train of thought.
By the time I finished reading, I decided that this was the intention of Frumkin, and it was expertly woven into the story.
Although it is a short stop on their journey, in hindsight, I find Last Chance Camp to be a pivotal moment. Ezra and Orson think of themselves as different from everyone around them but the fact is that they are also white boys who were afforded an option other than jail time. They both continue to commit crimes but think better of themselves simply because they were poor.
But to me, from the outside looking in, Ezra was not poor.
For me, poor was when my family was homeless for a while when I was six years old. For me, poor is eating ramen packets for weeks, adding seasonings and eggs to it to make it seem more fun. For me, poor was when my teacher noticed my threadbare clothes and people donated new clothes for me to wear, to my family’s embarrassment.
Ezra Green, from a working-class "poor" family, lived in an apartment with enough bedrooms for him and his parents. Ezra was afforded the opportunity to “fail” and not face serious repercussions if he took the opportunity. What made Ezra an infuriating and expertly written main character was because, like many white men, he is blind to these privileges afforded to him.
Ezra is queer, and Frumkin also leaves Ezra’s gender identity up for interpretation, but he still benefits largely from his whiteness. Ezra continually exerts his whiteness over people lower than him on the capitalist and white supremacist ladder. I feel it is still rare in literature to see messy queer relationships examined and especially how white queer men still play into white supremacy.
Frumkin does a fantastic job dropping us in the headspace of Ezra; he’s wrapped so much in the idea of what he’s owed that he doesn’t step back and examine his actions.
While I won’t spoil the ending for readers, I will say that the novel didn’t end how I expected — but it ultimately made sense. I was furious but, still, the ending made sense. It has been quite a while since a novel was able to raise such a strong reaction out of me. For that reason alone, I have to recommend this book.
“Confidence” is messy and anger-inducing, and I could not put it down.
Read more of the May 31-June 6, 2023 issue.