First SF Weekly Sharpie Literary Awards

DISCUSSED IN THIS REVIEW: Cons, Scams & Grifts, 2001, Mysterious Press, Confidence, 2003, Lion's Gate Films What Should I Do With My Life?, 2002, Random House

On Geary Boulevard near Arguello, just before dawn, a ragtag band of repo men stakes out a shyster's luxury auto dealership.

In a makeshift warehouse barroom, four men -- a couple of shills, an inside man, and a grifter -- stage a gun brawl to scare their mark off some loot.

In San Francisco's Financial District, a sentimental technology writer meets a Native American sweet-talker, a shaman in a banker's suit who conjures money from seemingly nowhere and builds projects few ever see.

This year's summer entertainment season is flush with stories about sharpies, and SF Weekly is taking this week's regular investigative news column space to review three of the best.

Last month, I began reading Marin County detective novelist Joe Gore's latest DKA Agency saga, Cons, Scams & Grifts, and like a mark at a shell game, I couldn't walk away. The novel rips through the aforementioned car-lot repo raid and delivers myriad subplots in which detectives, gypsies, cops, and robbers wangle their way through a shifting subculture of Old World rituals and modern-day cons.

The exciting film Confidence has been out for a while, but I didn't catch it until earlier this month. In the movie, cool-hand grifter Jake Vig (Ed Burns) steals a fortune from an accountant in the aforementioned bar brawl. The scam goes awry, and Vig's crew spends the rest of the flick conning hustlers less savory than themselves.

As good as these flimflammer fables are, SF Weekly's first-ever Sharpie Award for best tale of shiftiness goes to Po Bronson, whose What Should I Do With My Life?(Random House, 2003) gives the corner-shaving genre a Po-Mo (as in postmodern) twist. Bronson goes meta, assuming the persona of an author who has himselfbeen conned.

Bronson disguises his saga as uplifting, maudlin Oprah Book Club fare, "an inspiring exploration of how people transform their lives and a template for how we can answer this question for ourselves," the jacket says. After profiling 52 inspirational people, in Chapter 53 Bronson ties up his book with the inspirational tale of Deni Leonard, a man with a gift for empowering native people with seemingly magical moneymaking abilities. But former associates, and the public record, suggest Leonard has something of a gift for questionable business practices.

In other words, it appears that Bronson wrote the ultimate chiseler's tale, one in which the author himself was snowed.

Bronson, also author of the popular books The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest and The Nudist on the Late Shift, says he researched Leonard over the course of several years; at one point he'd hoped to do a New York Times Magazine profile of him.

"I don't know that I got snowed," Bronson told me. "I traveled, I interviewed a lot of people; I felt I'd characterized what I'd seen accordingly in the book.

"Business in the hands of Deni is a sort of magic trick, as practiced by businesses everywhere. I know lawyers who use the law as a magic trick; I know politicians who use politics as a magic trick. In the book, I describe it as, he needed to learn the white man's way."

Bronson's book is presented as a sort of self-help tome in which he profiles 53 people who've found their "true calling." There's a minister who says he's overcome an anger-management problem, a Harvard business school alum who's a cop, and finally, in a chapter called "Magic Man," there's Deni Leonard, the aforementioned shaman in a banker's suit, who, Bronson seems to acknowledge, has taken a life path that's hard to describe.

"You're familiar with the term "parallel universe'? A parallel universe is in our midst, but we can't see it," Bronson writes. "Well, that's sort of like what Deni's up to. He's spawning an entire parallel economy, using sources of capital you didn't know existed, building factories and power plants you'll never see, on land and in neighborhoods you'll never go to."

Bronson continues with an uplifting profile of a man he describes as using mysterious business ideas to economically redeem his Native American people.

Judging from the text of his book, Bronson seems unaware of the Deni Leonard whom former associates, an attorney who represented Leonard, some Native American tribal leaders, and a voluminous court record describe as, at the very least, ethically challenged. This is the same Deni Leonard whose name was behind a bizarre proposal last year seeking to construct a $4 billion development on Treasure Island, and who was behind a highly suspicious failed development plan in the East Bay.

In the case of Deni Leonard, the story derived from the public record and interviews with former associates is a far more interesting tale than the inadvertently fictional account in Bronson's book.

Leonard, through spokesman John Mejia, said he did not wish to be interviewed for this column. Mejia subsequently asked me to submit a list of questions for Leonard, which I did. I had received no response by press time.

Mejia did say that Tom Burbank, whom he characterized as a disgruntled employee, had stirred up criticisms of Leonard. Burbank certainly appears to have an ax to grind; he has taken over a Web site that once offered information on a Leonard business,, and filled it with criticism of Leonard's dealings. Leonard has attempted, so far without success, to obtain a restraining order against Burbank. Burbank, it seems, registered the site in his own name.

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