May 18, 2018KR Reviews

On Bunk by Kevin Young

Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2017. 560 pages. $30.00.

“Part of grief, I’ve found, is silence,” writes Kevin Young, in a rare soft note in his cacophonous tour through a central strand of American culture: the fake. Fake fairies, fake ghosts, fake George Washington’s nanny, fake Indians, fake punk orphan, fake wild men, fake Circassian beauties, fake Hitler diaries, fake Monkey Man, fake Harvard sophomore best-selling novelist—Young describes and interrogates the proliferating plenitude of hoaxes that ebb and flow through our media. While the book serves as a vast catalog of improbable deceptions, it also ventures to suggest why the faker fakes, and why the duped are so eternally eager to fall for it.

Some of these stories are familiar, such as the breakdown of James Frey’s 2006 book A Million Little Pieces. First sold to an adoring public as a true story of addiction, Frey ultimately held on by relabeling the book a novel. Young finds a similar trajectory to many of these fabrications, the perpetrator standing by the lie ever more strongly as exposure nears. Bunk rolls out one after another of these unbelievable stories: a middle-aged Kansas woman claims to have been kidnapped by a secret tribe of telepathic Australian aborigines and inducted into their ancient ways; a white Los Angeles girl describes her time at the heart of black gang life in South Central; a Frenchman spends decades impersonating “a gentleman from Formosa,” writing his era’s definitive text on the island he never even visited.

Many books on fakes get at the what and the how, but they rarely address the why. Bunk, in contrast, spirals deep into the reasons people create hokum. Almost all these fakes have racial anxiety at the core. Time after time, Young shows us white people pretending to be not white. The writer known as Nasdijj makes himself into a fake Native American, detailing the fake death of his fake son. A fake Syrian lesbian blogging as “Gay Girl in Damascus” is a white man from Georgia. On the other hand, an African-American journalist, Janet Cooke, concocted a fake black family featuring a fake eight-year-old heroin addict. In this case the writer is not pretending to an ancestry she doesn’t have. But Cooke’s Pulitzer-winning story “Jimmy’s World” served up obvious clichés of ghetto life, lauded as authentic by her white editor and by white readers who had no idea what authentic ghetto life might be. The racial cliché hooks us because we are more at ease with a caricature than with real people and their complexities. Young quotes an actual Asian American writer responding to fake Chinese poet Yi-Fen Chou, revealed to be yet another white guy: “‘They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist.’” The Nasdijj story illustrates this well. The so-called Nasdijj published three pain-filled memoirs between 2000 and 2004 before being unmasked as a minor Michigan pornographer, Tim Barrus. Much of his work was based on that of noted actual Native American author Sherman Alexie. Alexie had written to Nasdijj’s publisher, pointing out the near plagiarism and the lack of details of tribal names, ceremonies and locations. “They took me seriously, but they didn’t believe me,” says Alexie.

Young moves through these tales in a circular fashion. Incidents are mentioned then dropped, then recur a few pages later, to be studied in depth. Some pages render dizzying changes of topic, starting with a literary hoax, leaping to Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal, and landing at the child Kevin Young watching cartoons in his PJs. Along with quick scene changes, Young’s writing is marked by brilliant puns and word play. Young describes the pleasure of the hoax, and the alignment between what the perpetrator wants and what the audience delights in believing. Young’s own glee in the material is plain. Occasionally he alights on pronouncements that seem to pin down his subject, as if we’ve finally arrived at a conclusion:

See, here’s the thing—the regular world, the ordinary world, the light that is just now so remarkable is, in fact, mostly enough, but in the hands of a real artist all this can become extraordinary. Can become more than it is, but also what it is. Words or screens or images cannot make the world more real, but they can make it more beautiful or terrifying, recognizing its every day, atrocious miracles. This is accompanied, perhaps insisted upon, by our wish for whimsy, for fantasy, for the unreal to take us away. But what we lately endure is not actual fantasy that takes the world as its starting point and may, in the end, change that world—rather, we have a life so dependent on reality but insistent on its falseness that even daily life remains constantly full of affect. That is the danger of bunk.

But that’s only the middle of the book, and the danger of bunk bores deeper still. Young shows in just a few places what it might be like to deal with the world as it really is. Young is quite generous to Ben Bradlee, long-time editor of the Washington Post, for owning up to his own faults in letting “Jimmy’s World” get by him. Bradlee admits that several black reporters at the Post were skeptical of Cooke’s fabrication, but Bradlee was too far above them in the office hierarchy to heed them. Young then considers a scene in Bradlee’s memoir totally unrelated to the Janet Cooke story. Bradlee attributes some of his career success to the luck of buying a house on the same street as a certain influential couple. Bradlee describes shaking hands with them and strolling their baby carriages together down their DC street. “But what black couple could have exchanged such handshakes in such a neighborhood in 1957?” Young muses. “It isn’t simply ‘luck’ buying a house on the same street a young Jack and Jackie Kennedy would move to months later—others might call this fortune.” This might be the hoax that all the other hoaxes are mere shadows of, that the workings of race, class, and privilege appear as magic forces to those most deeply benefiting from them.

“Part of grief, I’ve found, is silence,” Young ends one of the few passages in Bunk that lays the author himself bare. A poet, an essayist, a bibliophile, a professor, all this too may be a kind of magic that vanishes when brought up against the indignity of also being classified as a black man. “Whenever I tell a white person about the injustice at the airport, or on the street, the daily snubs, or that my white neighbor’s farewell to me as I was moving out of my apartment last year was Goodbye, nigger and that no one in the condos or the condo board, both painted white, did a thing about it, they too grow silent.” Here is the real pain at the core of the hoax, a pain borrowed and amplified by the plagiarists, distorted and turned into cliché by the fabricators. Here’s the world more real, more terrifying, more inexplicably shitty than we can handle. Young shows us the crazy lengths we will go to elude the reality of our racist society, that fake indigenous telepaths can’t, after all, help us make sense of. Bunk’s fountain of humor and knowledge, wit and insight, plays on as a means of mitigating this cold droplet of grief.

Angela Woodward is the author of the novels Natural Wonders (FC2, 2016) and End of the Fire Cult (Ravenna Press, 2010), and the collections Origins and Other Stories (Dzanc, 2016) and The Human Mind (Ravenna, 2007).