Monday, August 03, 2015

Everyones' a Con Artist: Con Academy by Joe Schreiber

Andrea comes up behind where I'm standing and reaches around me to the map of the South Pacific. "Here?" she says. I nod.

"It's so tiny."

"Just a speck," I say.

"Like it's hardly there at all," she says. "Look, Will. Here's the thing. Your whole life story...? I don't buy a word of it.

I don't think you've even seen
South Pacific, let alone actually lived there." She's smiling widely as she glances back at the photo on my desk. "And if this photo was taken anywhere besides Florida, I'll eat it."

"The people from my village...," I say, lowering my gaze. "They warned me that there would be those who didn't understand."

"Oh, please, she says. "Give it a rest."

Andrea Defresne gets it that Will has forged and hacked his way into a scholarship to the gold-plated halls of Connaughton Academy, the zenith of WASP aspirations for the privileged teen. Nailed, Will confesses all. "Your secret is safe with me," promises Andrea, with a Giaconda smile.

But during the night Will Shea is wakened by a campus security guy followed by a distinguished-looking guy in a rich burgundy robe with the Academy logo, declaring that he is Dr. Melville, headmaster, brandishing a sheaf of papers stamped New Jersey Department of Human Services in front of Will, a.k.a. Billy Humbert, with a two-year-old photo of a surly Billy paper-clipped on top. It seems Will's scholarship scam has been busted, and he is forced to take advantage of his first floor dorm room window and take it on the lam. But on the hike to the bus station, he's offered a ride by his English teacher who chattily tells Will that he's not the only poor orphan on scholarship at the Academy. The other student's name, interestingly, is Andrea Dufresne. Instantly Will sees that he, the scion of several generations of grifters, has almost been out-scammed by Andrea and a couple of guys who owe her a favor. But two can play that game, and Will heads back to the Academy to confront Andrea.

"I'll tell the real Dr. Melville what I know about you," I say. "And we'll both end up doing senior year in public school. It looks like we're stuck with each other."

"No." Andrea settles into her swivel chair and smiles. "Because you're right about one thing, Will. There isn't room in this school for both of us. And I was here first."


Then some painful run-ins with the cruel retail heir Brandt Rush, Big Jerk on Campus, cause Will's bunco DNA to kick in, and he's just itching to take the insufferable Brandt down and bolster his own bank account as well.

And like Brandt's over-stuffed family money vault, Will's got family resources to fall back on, too, in the personages of his Great-Uncle Roy, grifter extraordinaire, and his dad, a great conman when he's not drinking, and a pretty good one even when he is. Will and Co. come up with a two-million-dollar on-line poker caper to suck in Brandt Rush's long green. Brandt Rush has his dirty tricks, too, with a minion texting winning poker plays and Andrea as head of his A-Team, but thanks to Will's new library geek girlfriend Gatsby, he's got the goods on the the headmaster, Dr. Melville, whose father had apparently bribed his dubious scholar son into Connaughton Academy with the gift of a beautifully faked Gutenberg Bible. With what he's got on the headmaster and on Andrea Dufresne, Will thinks he's holding all the winning cards.

But it seems everybody is a con in Joe Schreiber's latest, the aptly named Con Academy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). Compared to the rest of the players, the author manages to make his seventeen-year-old Sundance Kid a sympathetic character, and his salty cast of assorted scammers move briskly through a labyrinthine storyline in which everyone winds up both a winner and a loser. Despite its overlapping confidence games, Con Academy is a page-turning uproarious romp for young adult readers.

Joe Scheiber is also the author of another picaresque couple of novels about a loose-cannon rogue teen character who runs afoul of international counterspies in Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick and sequel, Perry's Killer Playlist. (See my reviews here.)

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