Tuesday, March 14, 2006

James Frey and Kenneth Rexroth: Memoir vs. Autobiographical Novel

"One of the most disturbing things about the whole James Frey brouhaha this week is that the book that sold 3.5 million copies was turned down by nearly every major publisher when it was offered as fiction." -Patry Francis, simply wait, January 14, 2006

When I first read about the controversy over James Frey's memoir, A Million Little Pieces, I thought about Kenneth Rexroth's An Autobiographical Novel, published in 1964. Rexroth is a far better writer than Frey, but he also blurs the line between fact and fiction. As in Frey's book, some of the questionable incidents take place in what the Chamber of Commerce types call Michiana--north central Indiana and southwest lower Michigan.

From 1998 to 2003, I wrote a column in the Elkhart, Indiana Truth which focused on local history. Rexroth, who was born in South Bend and spent his early years in Elkhart, was a fascinating subject, but An Autobiographical Novel. made research frustrating. For example, Rexroth says both his grandfathers were named George. I spent hours looking for maternal grandfather "George Reed." Finally, I located the obituary for Charles Reed, whose daughter was a Mrs. Charles Rexroth. Had Rexroth forgotten, or was he uncomfortable with the fact that his mother had married a man with the same name as her father? Freud was gospel in those days, and Rexroth may not have wanted to give his mother an Oedipus/Electra complex.

Sometimes Rexroth exaggerates events. A flour mill explosion he claims to have witnessed, "killed everybody in the place." In fact, the explosion took place in the wee hours of the morning, and the only casualty was a cat. He can also make people more interesting. In 1912 Charles and Della (Kenneth calls his mother Delia, though official records list her as Della) lived on South Second Street in Elkhart, two doors down from the Winchester/Knickerbocker mansion, "....the home of an elderly couple named Knickerbocker. They manufactured a galvanic battery health device which made them a fortune." They claimed the device could cure "cholera morbus, rabies, paralysis, galloping consumption, or cancer." The truth was more prosaic. William Knickerbocker was a banker. (After William died in 1937, his widow, Nellie Winchester Knickerbocker, became more interesting. She drove around Elkhart in an ancient electric car, with flowers in vases on either side of the seat. Her ghost is said to haunt the mansion.)

But in spite of all the factual errors, Rexroth's book is provides a fascinating look at Elkhart in the years before the Great War. Chicago in the Twenties, and San Francisco in the Thirties and Forties. Unlike, say, Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, or Sherwood Anderson, he sees progressive values in the upper Midwest:

The towns in northern Indiana lying along the Michigan border had been the last stops on the Underground Railway. They had a good many Negro freedmen living in them. Elkhart became one of the centers of the Ku Klux Klan some fifteen years after that, but in my days there if you called a man a nigger in the street a white man would very likely walk up to you and knock you down.

While Frey's memoir is not in the same league with Rexroth's, reading (or rather listening to) it gave me an insight into the mind of an addictive personality. I'm willing to forgive a few factual errors, or even outright untruths. Rexroth, in the preface to the second edition, writes:

How much of it is true? Substantially it's all true. The title was the first publisher's notion of one way of deflecting possible libel suits. Some of the people are divided up into two or three characters and then opportunely die. Now everybody of whom anything the least unpleasant is said really is long dead. Names have been changed throughout to avoid any embarrassment to the character or heirs; otherwise, this is all pretty much the way it actually happened. It will never happen again.

And in one sense he's right. In spite of factual errors, it's one person's memory of times events that "will never happen again." It's unfortunate that Frey's publisher did not subtitle A Million Little Pieces An Autobiographical Novel.

Monday, March 06, 2006

How I Passed Bonehead Math

Just about the only commercial television program I watch is Numb3rs. I like the program in spite of the fact that I've never been good at mathematics. For people like me, math is a very difficult subject to learn, for the perplexing reason that its teachers are good at math. In eighth grade trigonometry, I was totally baffled about what to do with the sines, cosines, and tangents. The teacher would give formulas on how to calculate them, but not what to do with them once calculated. Once I learned how to use them ( as I recall, it involved multiplication), I had no problem. But the math teacher didn't bother explaining things that were obvious to mathematicians. Nor did my math text explain it clearly.

I managed to get through high school math with mostly Cs. When I took the ACT, I did better in math than I expected, but not well enough to test out of the University of Iowa's core math requirement, informally known as Bonehead Math. And a recent episode of Numb3rs reminded me of how I got through the course with a C, thanks to antiwar violence in the 1970s.

The episode began with black-and-white footage of antiwar protesters, then cut to an unidentified person making a bomb. The Hollies' "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" played in the background. The bomb goes off at an Army recruiting office, killing a bystander. It appears to be a copy of a 1971 bombing at an ROTC office, and a retired FBI agent, who worked on the 1971 case, is brought in to assist. I won't get into the details, but math whiz Charlie Eppes uses network analysis to solve both cases.

I took Bonehead Math during the spring semester of 1970. By May, I was still holding on to a C, but I wasn't confident about passing the final. On May 4, the Ohio National Guard opened fire at Kent State University, and four people died. That night, the protests at Iowa turned violent. I was living at home in North Liberty, six miles north of Iowa City, so I didn't witness the rioting. On the morning of May 5, I saw the aftermath. Many of the downtown stores had their windows broken; the legend KENT was writ large on a concrete underpass. The Iowa National Guard arrived later.

After more demonstrations, the University decided to shut down. Students had the option of taking the grade they had at the beginning of May or taking an incomplete. I had my C, and I had passed the math requirement. Even though I had avoided the final exam, I had a recurring nightmare of having to take it, and being thoroughly unprepared.