Cold, Hard (Counterfeit) Cash

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By Liaquat Ahamed
Sunday, October 4, 2009


The Story of a Master Counterfeiter

By Jason Kersten

Gotham. 292 pp. $26

Financial criminals, such as corporate chieftains who rip off their shareholders or fraudsters like Bernie Madoff, are generally viewed as despicable because they so often steal from people much poorer than themselves. Not so with counterfeiters. Passing dud notes may not be a completely victimless crime. But true professional forgers are careful not to spend their fake dollars in their own neighborhoods, in part of course out of a very practical concern about being caught by the Secret Service, but also because of a strange sense of honor towards non-thieves -- the assorted bartenders, waiters, limousine drivers, strippers and call girls -- who surround them and service their needs.

"The Art of Making Money," by Jason Kersten, tells the story of Art Williams, a maverick counterfeiter from Chicago. From early childhood, Williams seemed destined for misfortune. His father, a small-time crook, abandoned the family when Williams was 11. His mother was subsequently diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia and, having only the most tenuous grip on reality, was wholly unable to look after her three children. The family ended up on welfare in the projects of Southside Chicago, a land of guns, drugs and gangs. At the age of 13, Williams took his first steps in a life of crime by breaking into parking meters and was soon supporting the family by stealing cars before graduating to robbing local drug dealers.

He was introduced to counterfeiting by one his mother's boyfriends, who took a liking to the kid. The boyfriend soon disappeared, presumed dead at the hands of a disgruntled client, leaving Williams to pursue the secrets of forgery for himself. And that was when the fun began. The heart of this wonderful book, which reads like the script for a caper movie, takes us through the whole painstaking process -- false starts, dead ends and cliffhanger setbacks -- as Williams improvises his way to becoming an expert counterfeiter.

Like any good caper movie, the story is crowded with colorful characters, straight from the pages of Elmore Leonard. Williams's clients include a Chinese gangster called the Horse; a party-throwing Russian hoodlum from St. Petersburg; and a Mexican mafioso. His accomplices included his girlfriend, Natalie, one of four nubile sisters whom he bedded at various points; an ex-boxer and shakedown man with attention deficit disorder; a trash-talking cab driver; and a six-foot-tall, 280-pound Lithuanian wrestler, who acted as his bodyguard.

Williams may have developed the technical skills to become a master at his craft, but he lacked the discipline to make his art into a business. He just could not restrain himself from breaking the cardinal rule of his profession: do not pass your own fake notes. Instead, he took off with Natalie on a spending spree across the malls of the western United States, laundering their phony money by paying for $10 items with $100 counterfeit bills and taking the change in real dollars. As the reader watches Williams play Robin Hood by dropping off the unneeded items accumulated on this shopping rampage at Salvation Army dumpsters, it is hard to shake the growing sense that his days are numbered.

For all Williams's big-heartedness, his ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory is frustrating. Williams eventually catches the attention of the Secret Service not because it manages to track him down but because, at a critical moment, he goes partying and is busted for drugs by the local cops, who stumble across his cache of fake dollars. He is finally undone, however, by his deadbeat father, who, like everyone else, becomes infatuated by the promise of limitless free money conjured up by his son's hands.

This is a fun book, fast-paced and full of vim, a screenplay in the making. But life is a lot messier than the movies, and, to his credit, Kersten does not flinch from reality. In fact, his unsentimental refusal to gloss over the unsavory and depressing details of Williams's life, the private demons that haunt him and his whole dysfunctional family, gives this book its true authenticity of character.

Liaquat Ahamed is the author of "Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World."

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