What is more American than reinvention? After all, only a keystroke separates “making it” from “faking it.” Change your name, rewrite your past, hobnob with the right people and occasionally murmur “old sport,” and bingo, Jimmy Gatz, that poor kid from the Midwest, is now the debonair and diamond-studded New Yorker Jay Gatsby.
Given our fluid identities, little wonder that Americans stew about authenticity. Is image all?
During dark Phildickian nights of the soul, everything can start to seem mere sham, all the world a stage-set, men and women merely players. In “Bunk,” Kevin Young exhaustively tracks our longtime ambivalence toward “hoaxes, humbug, plagiarists, phonies, post-facts, and fake news.” In these pages our founding father isn’t George Washington, who supposedly couldn’t tell a lie, but rather showman P.T. Barnum, who brazenly exhibited an old black woman as Washington’s 161-year-old childhood nurse.
Any great humbug, Young tells us, relied on chutzpah. Old-time hucksters and flimflam artists scarcely cared if you believed them or not. What mattered was for you to come away feeling that you’d had your money’s worth. Maybe the carnival’s Missing Link was authentic, or maybe only a put-on, just a black guy dressed up in a weird ape outfit. Either way, you had a good time, especially when your sweetie screamed and clutched you tighter.
Of course, the barker’s wink and grandiloquent patter already give the game away: Hoaxing is all about performance, coupled with what that notorious plagiarist (and immortal poet) Samuel Taylor Coleridge called our own “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” Today nobody over the age of 9 seriously believes that “reality TV” is an unscripted slice of life. Truth can be elusive, so we settle for “truthiness.” Suckers, as Barnum knew, are born every minute.
In the early chapters of “Bunk,” the multitalented Young — a poet, teacher, cultural essayist and, as of this year, the New Yorker’s poetry editor — zeroes in on newspaperman Richard Locke’s 1835 Great Moon Hoax, in which the New York Sun reported the existence of winged humanoids on the lunar surface. Sales of the paper skyrocketed, which was, after all, the point. He relates how, later in the century, the Fox sisters inaugurated Spiritualism by secretly cracking their toes. Communication with the Other World then led to “spirit photography,” which purported to show the astral bodies of our dead loved ones hovering near us. Meanwhile, gullible scientists examined the skeletons of those manufactured marvels, Piltdown Man and the Cardiff Giant.
As the author of “The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness,” Young frequently underscores the racialist character of many deceptions and frauds, including the phony scientific data that undergirded theories of black inferiority. He deftly peels away the layers of racism in sideshow mermaids, “Feejee” savages and Circassian beauties. Yet he also takes time to glance at Arthur Conan Doyle’s naive belief in fairies, peer at the artwork of the notorious forgers Elmyr de Hory and Han van Meegeren, and skim briefly over some classic poetry hoaxes, notably Chatterton’s “discovery” of works written by the medieval bard Thomas Rowley and Australia’s Ern Malley affair, which revealed how readily magazine editors can be fooled by claptrap presented as modernist verse.
Despite all this plenty, the first half of “Bunk” serves largely as the warm-up act to Young’s main attraction: the celebrity cheats and liars of our own era. What a lineup! Clifford Irving forges the autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes; Jerzy Kosinski messily blurs fiction and nonfiction; Janet Cooke makes up a young heroin addict for “Jimmy’s World,” which earns her, briefly, a Pulitzer Prize; Lance Armstrong repeatedly swears that he never took dope to win the Tour de France; the sexually abused memoirist JT LeRoy turns out to have been a “persona,” created by writer Laura Albert; James Frey temporarily fools the world, and Oprah Winfrey, with his imaginary Grand Guignol past; Stephen Glass courts fame (and exposure) by cranking out magazine stories that are too good, or rather too lurid, to be true. Attempting to justify his own rank betrayals, Jayson Blair later claimed he was just sticking it to his white bosses at the New York Times when he fabricated stories about Washington’s Beltway sniper without even bothering to leave his Brooklyn apartment.
As Young stresses: “The various forgers, frauds, and fabulists that journalism has endured in recent years have only hurt the idea of reporting as an essential part of democracy. The healthy skepticism that is the journalist’s chief tool has lately succumbed to a contagious cynicism about journalism itself, if not an outright mistrust of the media as a whole. The First Amendment shall be last.”
All too often, Young reminds us, pseudo-reporting trades on sadly familiar anxieties and preconceptions about African Americans. The case of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who pretended to be black and actually headed up her local NAACP, generates pages of sardonic observation. In his book’s final chapter, a disheartened Young reflects on the White House’s self-mythologizing fantasist, P.T. Barnum’s evil twin.
Despite its many merits, including a terrific annotated bibliography, “Bunk” may strike some readers as overlong and somewhat ramshackle. While usually clear and journalistic, Young’s prose constantly shifts registers, sometimes veering into cultural theorizing, at other times opting for sassily hip street talk. This tonal restlessness certainly adds a variety and richness to the book, but also reinforces the impression that Young can’t stop talking and can’t bring himself to leave anything out. Still, excess hardly matters when there’s so much to enjoy and learn from in this encyclopedic anatomy of American imposture and chicanery.
Michael Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.
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By Kevin Young
Graywolf. 560 pp. $30