Philip Roth wrote that assessment over 50 years ago, yet the same holds true today: truth is stranger than fiction.
“Writing American Fiction,” Roth’s essay from which these words were taken, began with a three-page recounting of a Chicago murder and its truly bizarre aftermath. Two girls go missing one winter after seeing an Elvis Presley movie. The case has the city on edge. When the warming weather melts the snowy cityscape, the girls’ bodies are found, naked, in a ditch. A ne’er-do-well drifter confesses to the killings after having shacked up with them for a few weeks. Or so he says. Nuns tell reporters that the victims “were not exceptional girls… they had no hobbies.” Out on bail, the confessed killer holds a press conference to profess innocence. He claims police brutality. The press takes a shine to him. Newspapers run contests, inviting readers to speculate about exactly how the girls were murdered. Still out on bail, the ne’er-do-well drifter develops a lucrative nightclub singing act. He drives around the city in a pink Cadillac. Meanwhile, seeking some small measure of publicity, a kitchen appliance salesman donates a brand new kitchen set to the mother of one of the victims. The mother is ecstatic. “Imagine me in that kitchen!” the mother tells her surviving daughter. All does not go as well for the drifter-turned crooner: he’s extradited to Florida on charges of having raped a 12-year-old there.
The question becomes, how can a writer of fiction make headway when each day’s news brings such lurid and fascinating stories? How can fiction compete with the real when the real can be so glammed up and game?
The Buffalo News recently ran a story about Brian “Spinner” Spencer, who played hockey with the Buffalo Sabres in the 1970s. Buffalo is my hometown, and I have fond memories of going with my father to the old Memorial Auditorium (“The Aud”) and watching Spencer and the Sabres. He was the kind of hockey player a blue-collar town loves: tough, aggressive, and persistent, there was no finesse to the way he wielded a stick. He never scored many goals, but he was always in the corners, fighting for the puck.
Off the ice, he custom-built a truck. Using the gutted chassis of a 2 ½ ton Army convoy transport as its base, he fitted onto it the cockpit of an old DC-3. He was friendly and generous, almost to a fault. Many of the truly great NHL players of the decade—Rick Martin, Darryl Sittler, Dave Keon, and Gerry Hart—maintained life-long friendships with him.
But flash back for a moment to 1970. Spencer has just been called up from the minor leagues to play in a nationally-televised NHL game. His father, Roy, lives in a remote British Columbia town.
“Roy Spencer was thrilled -- until he learned the local CBC affiliate wasn't going to show his son's game. It televised the Vancouver Canucks game instead. Roy Spencer drove 90 miles to the station in Prince George, took hostages at gunpoint and forced it off the air.
“When Roy Spencer emerged from the building, he shot at Mounties deployed outside. They returned fire, killing him in the parking lot.”
As soon as the game is over, officials deliver the bad news.
Can you imagine?
For the rest of his life, Spencer would tell anyone willing to listen that he was going to track down and kill the Mountie that shot his father.
Like Roth’s ne’er-do-well drifter, things did not end well for Spinner.
He retired from the game in 1980 and descended rapidly into substance abuse. He shot through what savings he had. Twice divorced and estranged from his children, he moved to Florida and shacked up with a professional escort. Former teammates tried to rescue him from his downward spiral, offering jobs and support, but he turned his back on them.
In 1987, he was arrested for kidnapping and murdering one of the escort’s johns. The prosecution builds its case largely on circumstantial evidence. The trial ends in an acquittal.
A few months after trial, Spencer’s life is still out-of-control. After bar-hopping all night with a friend, he makes a buy—crack cocaine. Shortly thereafter, he’s approached at gunpoint. It’s a stick-up, but Spencer refuses to co-operate. He’s shot and killed.
In a sidebar, The Buffalo News explored whether the material of Spencer’s life might make for a good movie. Reading this, I was aghast: Must the gold standard for a life be whether it can be successfully adopted for the big screen?
Alas, according to Hollywood producer Mark Ciardi, Spencer’s life might be too dark, too fantastic.
"That would be tricky," Mark Ciardi said of a film about Spencer's life. "I probably would have to keep stating "This is a true story!' over and over again to remind the audience.
"Nothing shocks me anymore, but [Spencer’s life] is a remarkable story. It's almost too crazy for the screen, too unbelievable."
The other day, I wrote about Willem de Kooning’s concept of “soup”—the role of the artist is to dip his or her hand into the “soup” that’s swirling all around us and make Art out of it. In the literary arts, the writer re-shapes and organizes events, creating meaning and impressions that hopefully will linger in the reader’s mind.
The single-best story I’ve read so far this year is the title piece to Ed Falco’s Burning Man (SMU Press), which was long-listed for this year’s prestigious Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.
The story concerns a meeting at the Burning Man festival between a quiet academic/novelist and his brother, “a rock-and-roll bad boy known all over the world as Splay—guitar player, singer, public madman, and pervert from the band of the same name.”
Splay’s the kind of luridly fascinating character we read about almost every day in People, TMZ.com, and newspaper stories culled from the details of police blotter reports. As Philip Roth might have said, “Who could have invented him?”
Yet what makes Falco’s story hum is his mastery of metaphor and image. Too often, attention to image is given short shrift in writing workshops, but Falco’s images are superb. Not only will they give you the creeps (I honestly could not sleep the night after reading this story), but he employs them for a unifying effect, creating meaning through their assemblage and destruction.
I’m tempted to write a little about the specific images, but my children read this blog and, frankly, it’ll mess with their psychological well-being if I do.
So let me quote instead the story’s opening paragraph:
“Burning Man was heat, dust and madness, and I felt about as out of place as it’s possible to feel, in my middle-aged body, in my khaki shorts and knit shirt and sandals, in my expanding belly and soft chest and salt-and-pepper hair cut short, surrounded by the extraordinarily young and youthful with extravagant manes of vibrant hair and muscular, ripe bodies, either mostly undressed or wildly costumed in getups that ranged from Fellini to Mad Max. I’d been at the Labor Day weekend Festival of the Burning Man for two days. I was about to meet my brother, whom I hadn’t seen in more than ten years. I was with a young woman named Chrysalis, no last name, whom I’d met as soon as I arrived at the festival. I pulled up in my Volkswagen camper, parked, and got out to look around at the Black Rock Desert, which is an amazingly flat expanse of crackled mud, and she was standing there, a waif of a girl in fat metallic boots over silvery quilted space-suit pants that came up to her hips and left her hard stomach bare between their Velcro-tab top and the bottom of a bright yellow halter. A massive, framed backpack hovered over her shoulders like a small building. She struggled under the weight of it. I asked if I could be of any assistance, and she shook her head and said no, that she was just about to set up camp. I told her I hadn’t seen her when I pulled up, and I offered to find another spot, but she looked me over and then smiled and said, No, it’d be okay, and we went about setting up our encampments and thus became neighbors.”
Really, it’s masterful. As is the whole story. As the whole collection, which I read a few months ago when I was working on novel revisions. I’ve been meaning to blog about this book for ages, actually.
Many of the stories in the collection directly address what it means to be an artist. I first read “Wild Girls” a few years back when it appeared in The Missouri Review. In that story, two women pick up an artist/teacher for a ménage à trois. (Mind you: I’m typing this as my six-year-old daughter is interrupting me to show me her toy poodle.) One of the women is a former student of the artist.
“He told her, honestly, she had all the talent she needed to succeed as an artist. What he didn’t tell her was how incredibly unlikely it was she’d have the luck and resolve she’d also need, along with the even more unlikely chance she’d have the kind of vision as an artist that was of interest to anyone other than herself. Or that she’d have the kind of character and intelligence that could translate the chaos of experience into something meaningful and resonant, or, even better and more rare, something beautiful. Those were the miracles she’d need. Talent was plentiful.”
Yep. Those words have also kept me awake some nights.
As Lou Reed sang in quite a different context, “It takes a busload of faith to get by.”