erasing clouds

Book Review: Kenneth Kahn's The Carny Kid: Survival of a Young Thief

by eric m. hoover

The title to Kenneth Kahn’s autobiography The Carny Kid: Survival of a Young Thief (Pendant Press, 2005) is a bit misleading. The story is not so much about a young crook but more the struggle of a bright adolescent growing up in the dark corners of the East L.A. slums.

Its opening centers on the twelve-year-old Kenny and his family’s suddenly evicted from their middle class suburban home thanks to ten months of overdue rent from his father, Barry. This incident is the first of many ups and down for the Kahn clan during profitable summers and hardship winters of the 1940’s and 50’s.

Those profits brought in by the warmer months came from scammers and charlatans who worked the traveling carnival grounds with Barry, Kenny, his mother Faye (with little sister Cookie always in tow) and younger brother Ricki. Whether they were all running separate swindles or joining together as a carny family to dupe the gullible in a game of chance, only those running the stand would come out ahead.

These behind the scenes revelations of how classic carnival games work is one of the most appealing aspects of the book. As a kid growing up on the boardwalks of the Jersey shore I even knew some of those games were rigged. Now we get to finally uncover why you could never knock down all three of those milk jars or see just how impossible it is to completely shoot out all of the red star at the bb gun stand.

The secrets of the carnival are spliced between vignettes starring mostly Kenny or his parents. The reader hears tales of Barry’s mislead youth as a sharp-dressed fast-talker conning his way into the pockets and hearts of men and women respectively. That is until he meets the future Mrs. Kahn. He is only drastically changed once more after meeting the beautiful Faye—when he takes his first taste of the dreaded morphine. It was an addiction that began as help for Barry’s recovery from a horrific car accident and would now run his and the family’s life for the next thirty years.

Midway through this life story the reader finds both of Kenny’s parents addicted to the needle, living in a ghetto as the only white/Jewish family after the eviction (because Barry would rather use family funds for drugs instead of bills) and leaving the preteen Kenny to run a daily obstacle course of thugs and druggies on his way to and from school.

Kenny and his family do overcome their drawbacks in moments of epiphanies sown together as small anecdotes, making even the harder stories of abuse (both of drugs and of body) captivating. The book includes several family photographs, which all paint a different picture than the chapters. We see a debonair Barry Kahn and the breathtaking Faye in pictures that resemble movie star press shots as opposed to the mug shots we expect to see.

The Carny Kid is a human story as real as anything you or I have witnessed. The events and people surrounding the Kahn’s help form their lives around tragedy and triumph a dozen times over. You keep reading, hoping for the outcome awaiting people who have battled insurmountable demons to make it out ahead of the game.

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