First Person by Richard Flanagan


Early in his career the 2014 Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan ghost-wrote a book about Australia’s greatest con man John Friedrich and this book is a fictional retelling of that experience. The narrator Kif is a long-time drinking buddy/friend of Ziggy Heidl’s body guard Ray and through this connection he gets the job. He is in dire need of money to support his family, and accepts the terms of the job that require a completed manuscript prior to payment. Ziggy has perpetrated a $700 million fraud. He is on his way to jail and believes the bankers he defrauded plan to kill him.

Kif spends hours with Ziggy unable to get any facts that could be useful for writing the memoir that must be completed in six weeks. They meet in an office in the publisher’s building and Ziggy is often on the phone, making a new deal or arranging to meet his attorneys. One day after Ziggy leaves the room, Kif checks the phone to see who Ziggy called last. It was a pizza joint, not someone he was making a deal with. His methods are described here:

At lunch he impressed on me that Cape York was a big project financed by a venture capital firm out of Seattle, while an hour later he said it was all a ridiculous media beat-up. By mid-afternoon it was the pet project of a Singapore media mogul whose anonymity he needed to protect.

He contradicted his own lies with fresh lies, and then he contradicted his contradictions….The necessarily incomplete nature of Heidl’s stories, rather than denying their supposed truth, instead confirmed it. I am not saying Heidl consciously made sure his slow-drip stories never quite matched, and were often entirely opposed. But as an instinctive ruse it was more than effective. For the challenge to reconcile such outrageous lies lay not with him, but with you, the listener.

The short time that Kif spent with Ziggy was feverish and intense and Flanagan’s frenetic writing reflects that.

But I ignored it because the words were beginning to come. He was entering me and there were more and more words, and with each word somehow less and less of me. I was a man unmoored, once more adrift in a wild sea. Only this time, I did not know it. I had let him in. I did not know it, and all that time Heidl did.

As was the case with the non-fictional John Friedrich, Ziggy killed himself and the book was completed and published. Kif never recovered and though he became a successful reality TV producer, could never become the writer or the person he wanted to be.

Mr. MoonSeveral times Flanagan refers to Mr. Moon, the entrance to Luna Park in Melbourne, similar to the park in Sydney that I photographed. Here’s what Kif says

…I saw shaping out of the darkness and sheets of rain a great gaping mouth, a smile perhaps five meters high, framed within a giant white face, replete with staring, satanic blue eyes, above which red and yellow rays radiated into a vaguely oriental proscenium….There was something hellish about his vast, blood-red lips, the deeply etched lines of his cheeks, his odd arched plucked eyebrows–a grubby, grinning Mephisto.

He’s a bloody funhouse mirror, Ray said. Look at Heidl long enough and all you can see is yourself.


Perhaps Richard Flanagan had reason to write about this other than the 2016 US election, but Ziggy sure does have a familiar look. And then there’s this:

If he had just jogged along until the new century he might have brought whole countries down rather than just his own business and a few investment banks.

This book rings distressingly true to to me as I have watched horror show of the Republicans and all those others who benefitted from the rise of a grotesque showman in our country.

The last chapter is Kif’s coda and has a lovely memory of his youth in Tasmania.

When Ray and I were young we had often walked and sometimes run up remote tracks to the mountain top. Run! It was inconceivable now. The joy, the wonder of it all. The beauty that was our gaze. Everything we saw sparkled in its glory. The loveliness of it, the sweetness of it. We could not believe that such beauty was ours. We had nothing and we had this. It was beyond explanation. We did not know the beauty was us.

I appreciated that high note. It is an intense and wonderful book and now I want to think about someone with more consciousness of their Buddha nature.

Richard Flanagan, First Person, Alfred A. Knopf, 2017, 352 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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