In How to Win at Life by Cheating at Everything ($14.99, Dark Horse), the debut novel from screenwriter Mark Perez, a grifter known to readers by the alias John Dough recounts his life and scams in how-to form. Dough is a master bullshitter who got in on the con game when he was a child and works his way up to the ultimate job: scamming an entire town. He details his plans, how to work the system and how to get people to believe that he is the "town savior." It's hard to read this book and not think about current U.S. politics. However, that wasn't Perez's inspiration.
Perez says that the muse for this tale was his dad, who came to the United States from Cuba at the age of 13. "He would always teach me to cheat," Perez explains by phone from his home in Sherman Oaks. "I don't mean that we were grifters and we were stealing, but if you could lie to your boss to get more miles on your car, if you could lie about this to get that, if you could do stuff to give yourself an edge in ways, my dad didn't consider that cheating, he considered that winning. That's what winners do."
Yet the author can see the similarities between what he refers to as the "warped philosophy" that he learned in his youth and what he calls the "winning is all that matters" attitude in D.C. politics. "I was always thinking about my dad and that philosophy that, if you're not cheating, you're not trying," he says. But, he adds, "That's America now. So what if I had that meeting or so what if this happened? I'm the boss. Or, I won and you didn't.
"I think it's reflective of what's going on today," Perez says, even if he wasn't thinking about politics when he was writing.
Central to the story is a "long con," with the end goal of grifting an entire town. "And if you’re really, really good, after you’ve scammed them all, you may even end up beloved there," says Dough, the possibly unreliable narrator.
"People look up to that in a weird way," Perez says. "Even though people know that it's not all copacetic, they're still on your team in a weird way, psychologically. That was kind of the point to write."
And Dough isn't completely awful. He has a moral code and, on some level, his attitude toward cheating is giving the finger to the system before it screws him. The narrator breaks down the myriad ways in which all is not equal in the United States. "Organizations big and small, from grade school to the White House, always have a power structure. There are the important people and then there’s everybody else," he writes.
"It's almost like the Bernie [Sanders] pitch. It's rigged. Even Trump was saying that. Everything is rigged," Perez says. "That's almost like what my dad's pitch was when he came to America: To win in America, you need to kind of cheat."
In that respect, Dough's villainy is used to point out injustices. "That's what he's doing in the book is fighting institutions and saying they're doing it to you on such a galactic level, in such a big way, that for you to get a little bit here or to sneak a little here or to slide a little bit of money here to yourself is hardly a big sin," Perez explains.
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After graduating from Florida State University, Perez and his wife, an actress, moved to Los Angeles, where they "made a terrible short film" that landed the writer a manager. Perez had written a script about a 30-year-old runaway and took it to Disney; the studio didn't purchase it but it did bring him into a residency program that led to a gig writing The Country Bears — "the one ride movie that didn't make any money for Disney," he admits. Perez has worked mostly in film writing. He penned Game Night, which stars Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams and is set for release in 2018. How to Win at Life is his first novel.
The project came about when Perez's friend, an entertainment executive, came to him with the idea of writing a book that could theoretically be the basis for a television show or a movie. "The cool part about this was that it was the first time that I had written a book, but I could also rely on my screenwriting in that I kept in mind the character and how it could possibly translate to TV and all of those things intermingled," he says. In the process, Perez discovered that he also enjoyed the process of writing a book. Now he's at work on another book, a memoir about life in Illinois with his Cuban-American family.
Moreover, with books, Perez's work will definitely reach more than just a few studio executives. "Look, I'm blessed that people pay me to write movies. It's a miracle. I graduated with a 2.6 [GPA] from Florida State, it's a miracle that people pay me to do anything," he says. But there's a disappointment that comes with writing something that will not be read by anyone other than the executives who decide not to make it. A couple of years ago, Perez sold a TV show to ABC called Accidentes, about a Cuban-American law firm in Miami. " I was so excited about that. I thought it was really good," he says. "It got close. People liked it and then it just goes away. That's the heartbreaking part of it all." Unlike scripts, getting shelved isn't such a tragic fate for How to Win at Life. Perez just received a hard copy of it in the mail.
How to Win at Life by Cheating at Everything comes out Aug. 8.