When the old man died a relative said, "He was a bum, that's all he was."

And now the son, Geoffrey Wolff, has written "The Duke of Deception," a lively memoir about the old man who was, not to split hairs, a con artist.

"Still," I said when talking with the author, "there's something snotty about saying the man was a bum and that's all he was. Especially snotty for a relative to say. And especially since the man is dead."

"That's what I felt, too," said Wolff. "Maybe he was a bum. But surely there was a little more than that? Like raising dogs or something?"

The author, once book critic for The Washington Post, went to school at Choate and college at Princeton (he was a general pain to everybody at Choate) and if you looked at the printed record, you'd think he was a fine standard ordinary product of the middle class.

But the truth is, he grew up never knowing quite how anything was going to turn out. His father was a notable four-flusher, even by Yankee standards, and wound up in jail on bad-check raps, and his son couldn't get him to promise not to break bail, so the son refused to stand bail for him, and the old man wound up seedy and with body odor, and then he died and his body rotted because for a couple of weeks or so no human had any occasion to notice.

That was nine years ago. The surprise is not that the son worked his way through this heritage, came to terms with it, as they say, but wrote a book about it.

It's his fifth book and the only one the critics have been greatly pleased with.

Fathers, I suggested, are much of a muchness. There's something wrong with all of them, in their sons' eyes, and Wolff (I warned him) should not suppose it would have been much different if his old man played polo and was adored in Paris and made money and knew the best people -- hell, was the best people -- and got flowery editorials when he died. Fathers are still fathers, and sons are breathing dossiers of all their faults.

"Yes, people sometimes think my life must have been hell, with such a father, but of course it wasn't Wolff said.

"In the first place," I prompted him, "a boy assumes that whatever his family is like, it's the way everybody is."

"And besides," Wolff went on, "my father taught me many true things -- never rejected me -- and was compassionate, durable, generous, untruthful, unwise."

His father used to announce he went to schools he never went to, liked to boast of clubs he was not, in fact, a member of, had an aptitude for living made a great point of denying he was Jewish, had an aptitude for living with greater style than he could pay for and -- to cut short -- was everything a boy scout should not be. Nor, for that matter, a standard middle-class