Kevin Young explores bullshitters from P.T. Barnum to Donald Trump in his brilliant Bunk.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Thinkstock, NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images, and Boston Public Library.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Thinkstock, Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images, and Boston Public Library.

Just after Kevin Young handed in the manuscript of his magnum opus on American hucksterism, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, his publisher had to send it back to him. Young—a noted poet, the newly appointed poetry editor of the New Yorker, and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library—has a theory that most hoaxes have a racial subtext (that is, when race isn’t the overt text). So when the Rachel Dolezal scandal broke, of course he had to weigh in on that, and back to the keyboard he went. Bunk conveys the sense that Young might have gone on writing it forever, frantically trying to keep up with the real world’s ever more screamingly on-the-nose illustrations of his theme. After Dolezal came Melania Trump’s speech on the first day of the Republican National Convention in July 2016, which may provide even better proof of Young’s point. Married to a man whose political fortunes depend on his promise to shore up white privilege and on his repudiation of the nation’s first black president, Melania plagiarized her speech from Michelle Obama. You can’t make this stuff up.

By turns brilliant and frustrating, Bunk is nevertheless that rare thing, a trove of fresh and persuasive insights. When a poet turns to history, the expectation is often that the scholarship will be light, perhaps even superficial (think of the literary writers who have tried to turn their misapprehension of quantum physics into a metaphor for human relationships), but the prose will be gorgeous. Bunk, in the first of its many surprises, reverses that formula. Young indulges in a style that tends to obscure his sophisticated arguments, but the book is impeccably, even superhumanly erudite. If the history of the hoax is an ancient and labyrinthine city, then Young has explored every alleyway, gossiped with every fishwife, drunk in every bar in town. He has read countless books on fakes and frauds, from academic treatises to the dopey self-published “memoir” of an American lady who claimed to have been initiated into New Age mysteries by a nameless tribe of aboriginal Australians. He has also read scads of books tangentially related to the hoaxes he revisits, from the recollections of Washington Post editors to a disavowed early novel by Clifford Irving, author of a notorious fake Howard Hughes autobiography in the 1970s. This makes Bunk a delightfully bibliophilic ramble, with Young pausing, as he strolls through his stacks, to inform the reader that Jerzy Kozinski’s last novel, 1988’s The Hermit of 69th Street, is a “mess of a book” or that Corey Ford wrote a “terrific” parody of a half-forgotten bogus memoir published in 1929.

If I take issue with Young’s style in Bunk, it’s because the book’s pleasures are often squandered when he opts for a folksy bantering voice that values wordplay over precision. This is particularly vexing in a treatise on bullshit: the spinning of verbal castles in the air, the vagueness of excuses, of words used to evade rather than nail down the truth. Sometimes this wordplay is limited to groaner puns. Of a cache of love letters purportedly written by Abraham Lincoln to his first love, Ann Rutledge, and discovered among family documents by a woman named Wilma Minor, Young writes that some experts “began to voice their doubts, feeling the Minor material minor.” At other times, he makes cultural allusions that don’t particularly illuminate his point, describing a 2008 memoir titled Loose Girl as seeming “to play with the notion of truth, interrupted.” If you aren’t aware that Susanna Kaysen published an influential memoir called Girl, Interrupted in 1999, the phrase is puzzling, since Loose Girl doesn’t so much promise to interrupt the truth as to transfigure it. And if you are familiar with Kaysen’s book (whose veracity, as far as I’m aware, has not been questioned), the reference adds nothing significant to the discussion. This is the manner of wittiness without the matter.

If Young adopted this voice to avoid the dryness often attributed to scholarly writing, he needn’t have. His subject, a procession of outlandish, inventive, theatrical, and utterly brazen liars, is inherently entertaining. So are his analyses of their successes and failures, the reasons the public found first to believe and then to revile them. P.T. Barnum presides over the chapters on the 19th century. Young seems strangely fond of the man and of that era’s hoaxes in general. They were what Barnum called “humbug,” a form of fakery that strives not so much to deceive as to fill its beholder with wonder and an appreciation of the theatricality of the production, such as the Feejee Mermaid, a mummified monkey’s torso sewn on the tail of a stuffed fish. (At the Delaware County Fair in upstate New York, I saw an exhibit, which I did not investigate, promising a “Headless Woman” who “Still Lives!” — a venerable illusion that surely fools no one.) Barnum’s pitch entailed “making the audience part of the hoax, saying effectively, you’re smart, or better yet, you think you’re so smart: Come see and decide for yourself.” Young finds the closest contemporary analogy to this in reality TV, whose enjoyable unreality is a given and whose format serves to “make everyone a judge.”

Much of the spectacle offered up in sideshows and Barnum’s American Museum in Manhattan hinged on the exotic—that is, on people, frequently black, presented as “racial grotesques.” These included bogus pigmies and cannibals, actual albinos, and most notoriously, “Zip,” or “What is It?” a possibly microcephalic black man (his real name was William Henry Johnson) costumed in shaggy furs and exhibited as a freak. The high-society counterpart of these falsehoods were white imposters who presented themselves as visitors or refugees from places like Formosa and Java, about which they told titillating Orientalist stories designed to stoke Western fantasies of harems and atrocities. These popular hoaxes co-existed with and supported the pseudoscience of race, which also flourished in the 19th century and remains stubbornly persistent to this day.

“Do so many hoaxes involve race,” Young asks—“indeed, seem to require race in order to properly function—because race is the ultimate white elephant?” What, exactly, Young means by this isn’t entirely clear. There’s that precision problem: “White elephant” is a figure of speech that sounds cool and relevant to the race issue, but the term means a possession acknowledged to be expensive, inconvenient, and useless. Race may not be that, but it is a kind of hoax, a social distinction without meaningful scientific basis. As his account moves forward in history to the present, Young demonstrates how, over and over again, hoaxes both shored up the racial fantasies of white people and, as is so often the case with racial myths, enacted their own guilty consciences. “The hoax,” Young writes, is “a coded confession, revealing not only a deep-seated cultural wish but also a common set of themes.” Those themes often included brutality, enslavement, and rape.

Literary hoaxes are the subject on which Young shines brightest, and the chapters in Bunk covering the 20th century through the present cover one notorious example after another: falsified memoirs and reportage, plagiarism, and forgeries. Young jokes about the prevalence of phony poems in so many hoaxes, and damned if he can’t provide handfuls of examples. He perceptively notes that with the 20th century, the tenor of the American hoax changed, from the presentation of wonders to the recitation of traumas. There was a boom in fake Indians—whites who presented themselves as the tragic revenants of a people who could finally be safely mourned now that they had all but vanished. (This mythology served to erase the ongoing existence of real Native Americans.) That trend ultimately merged at the turn of the 21st century with what the British call the “misery memoir”: first-person accounts whose interest lies primarily in horrors the author supposedly endured and survived, typically as a child.

Kevin Young
Kevin Young

Melanie Dunea

The perfect combination of these two forms was Nasdijj, a memoirist who claimed to be a Navajo survivor of fetal alcohol syndrome who was raising, in grueling poverty, an adoptive son suffering from the same condition. He was, in truth, Tim Barrus, a white one-time author of pornographic gay novels. Young detects a connective tissue between porn and the hoax, each with its hotline to the unconscious, showing us “what we didn’t always know we want, just as the acts it depicts are all an act.” Nasdijj was unmasked in 2006, within months of the exposure of both James Frey and J.T. Leroy, the first of whom invented the most dramatic portions of his memoir A Million Little Pieces, and the second of whom did not exist at all. Two years later, Margaret Seltzer’s memoir of her youth as a white girl adopted into a black family and her membership in a black street gang, Love and Consequences, also turned out to be wholly false. Young characterizes this sort of writing as “stealing pain” from those who truly had such experiences, which it surely is. He investigates more tentatively the weird centrality of suffering in contemporary notions of authenticity and identity.

Bunk is at its sharpest when scrutinizing lying journalists, offenders who particularly irk Young because they provide the first draft of a history whose truth must be held sacred. “We should write like no one is looking over our shoulder—except the future,” he exhorts, showing that he can turn a stellar phrase when he’s not going for a laugh. In Stephen Glass, Young recognizes “the cultivation of a profound blandness that both covers up and enables the obviousness and extremity of their lies.” Glass’ pieces were a farrago of punchy details and anecdotes that were both outlandish and somehow predictable, tailored to meet the reader’s stereotypical expectations of what a black cab driver or a homeless couple are like. Young compares Glass’ articles to a page of Google search results: “this happened, then this happened, our economy’s collapsing, look over here, this dog was saved, this fire raged, this sister was shot, insert joke from late-night television, repeat.” This is because Glass’ “journalism” was consumerist, served up like Facebook ads designed to cater to what the platform has determined to be our interests, specifically, what we’re looking to buy. For Jayson Blair, the fabricating journalist whose notoriety rivals Glass’, Young has only contempt. In his memoir of his stint at the New York Times, where he was found to have flagrantly invented or plagiarized numerous articles, Blair tried to pass off such violations as incendiary tactics prompted by his experience as a black reporter at the predominantly white Times. Young declares Blair to be “no victim.”

It’s a truism (but also true) that hoaxes, like any confidence game, succeed by promising us what we wish for, even when we can barely admit those wishes to ourselves. Young sees Donald Trump as the heir to P.T. Barnum not because he lies, but because he bullshits. Trump doesn’t deceive his fans so much as he creates an environment in which whether something is true or not becomes irrelevant; all that matters is if it feels good. This perilous political situation is the logical extension of a certain defense of faked memoirs (particularly Frey’s) that drives Young up the wall. “It’s the same words! some protest once a hoax is revealed,” he writes. But often those words, like Frey’s memoir, which began its misbegotten life as a novel, would not have been published or read by their defenders in the first place without their claim to the status of fact. To pretend otherwise is to rewrite history on a small scale. Now the same process is being applied, wholesale, to the body politic. “What if the truth,” Young writes at the end of this occasionally aggravating but more often enlightening book, “is not an absolute or relative, but a skill—a muscle, like memory—that collectively we have neglected so much that we have grown measurably weaker at using it?” Does he even need to ask?

Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News by Kevin Young. Graywolf.

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