‘First Person’ by Richard Flanagan

‘First Person’ by Richard Flanagan, Knopf, 2018, 351 pages, $26.95

Richard Flanagan’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” won the Man Booker Prize in 2014. This new novel, his first since that time, appeared in Australia last year and has just recently been published in this country.

In the early 1990s, Flanagan was hired by John Friedrich, a notorious Australian con man, to compose a kind of “autobiography” for him in a few short weeks. Flanagan saw quickly that they would not get along.

Friedrich had cheated banks and government agencies out of hundreds of millions of dollars and was due to be imprisoned for the remainder of his life. The con man would eventually end his life with a gunshot to the head.

It is this sordid tale from his own life that Flanagan has appropriated for “First Person.”

Kif Kehlmann thinks himself a writer, yet something is getting in the way of his composing much of any consequence. In fact, a lot is getting in the way.

He can barely earn enough money to support his wife, Suzy, and their young daughter, Brigit, whom he lovingly calls “Bo.” The news that Suzy is now pregnant with twins becomes another hindrance to his finding time and place to write.

Then an offer from Gene Paley, a slick publisher, falls into Kif’s lap. Kif is not sure he can trust Paley: “There was in him an absence of so many things that I understood men were meant to be, and yet it was clear that he thought of himself as superior.”

Yet Paley’s offer is difficult to set aside. It’s $10,000 for six weeks’ work, even though it involves being the ghostwriter for a notorious criminal.

The subject for the proposed memoir is Siegfried Heidl, called “Ziggy,” a man who has defrauded multiple banks of $700 million. Because he’s soon to be put away forever, Heidl sorely needs the publisher’s money. That’s when Ray, his henchman, recommends his friend Kif.

The early sections of the novel are comprised of the fascinating and unsettling meetings between subject and would-be author. Kif is desperate to be a writer; Heidl desperately wants the memoir finished; neither is feeling particularly fulfilled working with the other.

Heidl is ominous and secretive and ambiguous. Kif can gather no information from him to help flesh out the memoir. “Ziggy” remains a cipher, even as Kif is forced to invent the con man’s past.

Yet Kif always suspects that Heidl has more than a passing interest in him and his family. In fact, Kif is increasingly conscious of Ray’s early admonition about Heidl: “Don’t tell him anything about yourself. You understand? … Give him nothing. Don’t let him in.”

It is an arresting premise for an ambitious novel about both the process of writing and the chances of finding truth in a world that fashions itself admiringly, almost enviously, after the lives of Heidls and Madoffs.

Along the way, Flanagan flirts with various literary questions, most notably the thin lines between biography and memoir, as well as at what point autobiography becomes fiction. He also examines the vagaries of writing and what comprises authorship.

“First Person” is also very much about what might constitute the meaning of truth, for the world at large and, more so, for ourselves. Flanagan’s novel is as much concerned with Kif Kehlmann, the ghostwriter, as it is with Siegfried Heidl, his subject.

Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.