Review: Kevin Young gives readers the truth about 'Bunk'

Published Dec. 13, 2017

We live in the age of the hoax.

Believe me.

And if you don't believe me, believe Kevin Young, author of the sometimes disturbing but always fascinating new book Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News.

In it, Young takes a sweeping, erudite look at the long and astounding history of his subject in American culture — positing that faking it might indeed be an essential part of that culture.

Young also looks at the complex relationship between hoax and race, from the first success in 1835 of circus impresario P.T. Barnum — exhibiting a black woman named Joice Heth, a slave Barnum probably purchased and whom he claimed was George Washington's nursemaid, which would have made her 161 years old — right up to the current resident of the White House, who jump-started his political career with a ludicrous, racist hoax about President Barack Obama's birthplace.

Young, a graduate of Harvard and Brown universities, is best known as an award-winning poet. His 11th collection of poems, Brown, will be published by Knopf in April, and he recently became poetry editor of the New Yorker.

He's also a noted cultural critic. His 2012 book The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness won the PEN Open Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle's award for criticism. (Bunk was long-listed for this year's National Book Award for nonfiction.) Young is also the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.

He brings all that literary and scholarly background to bear on Bunk, treating his slippery subject with rigor: The 560-page book includes 80 pages of notes and bibliography.

It begins with an apt quote from 19th century American novelist and editor William Dean Howells: "What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending." Since real life isn't likely to provide that on the regular, it follows that we're susceptible to the hoax.

"There's indeed a powerful, persistent notion," Young writes, "that the American character is filled not just with tall tales and sideshows but also with con men and fake Indians, pretend blacks and imposter prophets, with masks and money."

The very idea of race is bunk, Young points out. In 1775, naturalist Johann Blumenbach came up with a hierarchy of five racial classifications, including "Ethiopian, Mongoloid and American (or black, yellow, and red)," that have long since been debunked by later science. And yet, Blumenbach's "fabricated, race-baited term Caucasian persists" for those light of skin, even though the Caucasus Mountains, a region he theorized was the cradle of all humanity, are in Asia.

"Imagine his surprise," Young writes, "that scientists today agree that the first Homo sapiens emerged from Africa and race doesn't have any scientific basis."

Sideshows, reality TV

Many of the hoaxes Young recounts were forms of entertainment, Barnum serving as their forefather. Besides Heth (whose autopsy he sold tickets to), Barnum long exhibited a black man named William Henry Johnson, whose photo graces the book's jacket. Dressed in animal skins and odd hairdos, Johnson was billed first as a subhuman creature called "What is It?" and later as Zip, also a sort of savage. He had a six-decade sideshow career, was seen by an estimated 100 million people, inspired characters like the cartoon Zippy the Pinhead and, offstage, was apparently a pretty ordinary fellow.

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Other entertainment humbug includes Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, which Young calls "science faction," and the 1917 Cottingley Fairy photos, a scam perpetrated by a couple of young girls that fooled Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle.

Now, Young writes, "The best, current corollary we have to the dizzying delight of Barnum's many humbugs may be reality television. There, too, we can see a promised spectacle implied as real that quickly turns out to be staged."

We know it's not real, he notes, but we don't want to know. "?'You're fake' is the biggest insult a contestant can launch at another on reality TV because the whole staged endeavor might topple if anyone ever noticed there are script supervisors."

Not that our more high-falutin arts don't boast their share of bunk. Many of America's greatest writers have been intrigued by it. Herman Melville's novel The Confidence-Man gave us the term "con man," and Mark Twain's hoaxers range from Tom Sawyer and his fence-painting grift to Huck Finn's shameless pals the Duke and the Dauphin. Edgar Allan Poe called hoaxes "diddles" and wrote several himself, as well as an essay titled "Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences."

One landmark literary hoax was author Clifford Irving's entirely fake 1972 "autobiography" of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Claiming he was co-writing the book with the eccentric Hughes, Irving extracted hundreds of thousands of dollars from his eager publisher before the whole thing collapsed. (Irving's mistress found out he had been cheating on her and blew the whistle.)

Young writes, "As an enigma, Hughes was the perfect subject but also the perfect cover."

Irving also brought special skills to the task: He had written a previous (legit) book about a famous art forger and knew how to make a trail of bread crumbs. "Irving exploited Barnum's trick of allowing everyone to be an expert by regularly giving the book's publishers, lawyers, agents, and editors occasion to feel they themselves had verified a piece of information. ... Repeating a lie in two different places would count as verification."

Making up memoirs

Young devotes many pages to recent literary hoaxes, particularly bogus memoirs. "Memoir is a form under siege," he writes. "Though fetishizing the truth, the memoir is not in fact particularly interested in it. ... the contemporary memoir's chief note is tragic, the 'shock' of a hard-knock life substituting for its lessons."

Cases in point include James Frey's infamous A Million Little Pieces, for which he was dragged on the air by Oprah Winfrey, and the strange case of JT LeRoy. Both Frey and LeRoy wrote addiction-porn memoirs, but the latter added a fillip: He didn't exist.

"In the elaborate case of JT LeRoy," Young writes, "it was a woman named Laura Albert who became a multitude, portraying a prodigy who, the story went, had endured an almost unspeakable childhood, including abuse and neglect and prostitution. The boy named LeRoy had not only survived but also managed to write three books inspired by his life, charming the literary establishment and becoming an outsider hero."

Albert had written the books herself and posed as the author for phone interviews. When she needed a real live LeRoy for interviews and book parties, she added a gender-bending twist, recruiting her sister-in-law to play the part.

A scam can't get off the ground without media exposure, and the media can be taken in, too — and sometimes journalists commit the hoaxes themselves. Young writes about the 1835 Moon Hoax, a sensational series of stories about an astronomer who built a new kind of telescope in remote southern Africa and was able to see the surface of the moon, which was populated by different races (of course) of bat-people and other oddities. The astronomer was real, everything else was bogus — and it was all concocted by Richard Adams Locke, editor of the Sun newspaper, as a sales booster.

Young looks at more recent cases like those of reporters Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, who all fabricated stories, fooling top newspapers and magazines that published their work before they were unmasked and disgraced.

He notes one of Glass' more striking articles, about a group of homeless crackheads who formed a Kenny Rogers fan club. "The anecdote was Stephen Glass's method but also his madness. It allowed him to tell us a story with neither depth nor feeling, a mere factoid to be passed along like a virus. And what's wrong with going viral? Many such anecdotes are so unbelievable that they are hard to believe, which is why, oddly, folks believe them. Who would make up such things?"

It's one of the most insidious things about hoaxes, a quality that makes them far from harmless: "The hoax makes the truth sound untrue, or unsure."

'The hoax is catching'

Some of the stories Young recounts layer one hoax upon another, like the tale of the time the fake "JT LeRoy" and his creator Albert "went to Paris and ended up watching now-admitted cheater Lance Armstrong win his seventh Tour (de France bike race) in a row" — another con game Young explores.

Then there's Binjamin Wilkomirski, who wrote Fragments, a fake memoir about surviving the Holocaust (part of which he plagiarized from novelist Jerzy Kosinski, who had his own hoax story). Wilkomirski was then conned by a woman calling herself Laura Grabowski, who as Lauren Stratford had previously been part of a childhood satanic abuse hoax. She claimed she had known him at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where neither had ever been, and he confirmed her "memories."

Young writes, "There's terrible irony in these two fakers tricking each other, recognizing each other from false, or rather falsified, memories. ... The hoax is catching, until it catches up with you."

Sometimes, Young writes, even self-admitted bunk transforms into someone's truth: A 1967 hoax, a pseudo-government document called Report From Iron Mountain, was a parody by a left-wing writer that claimed "peace was bad for the country." By the 1980s it was "being passed around as gospel by fringe right-wing survivalist groups."

If you're going to write about phonies, sooner or later you're going to write about politics. The book's very title, Young tells us, originated in a political moment:

"The term bunk itself was born of conflict and race, coined in 1820 from the floor of the Sixteenth Congress when a North Carolina representative continued to filibuster for the Missouri Compromise that made Missouri a slave state: though the question had been called, he said he had to give speech for or to Buncombe, his home county."

Buncombe became bunkum became bunk, and Young looks at its application to the figure who haunts the whole book, although Young began researching and writing it long before he was elected.

"It isn't so much that President Trump is a liar — that epithet he regularly employs for others, while by every standard lying himself — as he's a bulls------," Young writes. "This prevalence of bunk goes beyond even Barnum's; Barnum did at least display actual people. Trump instead relies on phantoms, on the ghosts not just of truth but of actual people: dead Muslim soldiers, desirous women, professional protesters, the blacks."

Worse than the lies themselves is the fact that they call the very nature of truth into question, Young explains. "Hoaxers see hoaxes everywhere in order to shore up their own."

Given Young's meticulous research and transparent sources, it must have pained him to write, "What Trump really heralds is a time when there are no more experts. ...

"He ran a campaign and now rules by asserting his own amateurism as expertise, as well as by belittling the kinds of heroes and experts we have typically admired, from soldiers to POWs, scientists to artists, journalists to mothers. The best way to commit a hoax now is to claim you've spotted one."

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.