Let’s be honest: Investigative journalism can make readers feel like they’re trapped in the movie “Groundhog Day.” Just as Bill Murray’s character was forced to relive the same day, we’re offered an indistinguishable stream of exposes of government corruption, corporate malfeasance and school board shenanigans.
Confused minds wonder: Why did Alberto Gonzales fire Jim Black? Why did Karl Rove try to buy yellow cakes from Valerie Plamewas it a school fundraiser? And why was Mike Nifong hiding WMDs in his thong? (There were no WMDs? Never mind.)
As scandals have collapsed onto one another since Watergate (when Nixon traded plumbing fixtures for the hostages in Iraq), the very notion of investigative journalism has come into question. Can it be saved?
Perhaps it can, by replacing complicated scenarios with common knowledge. One intrepid reporter is leading the way: Alex Heard of The New Republic. With a bold “I.M.” emblazoned across his chest, Investigative Man is exposing the obvious with a vengeance. His first subject is not a powerful purloiner or frisky fifth-grade teacher but humorist and former Raleigh, N.C., resident David Sedaris. In an expose titled “This American Lie,” Heard accuses Sedaris, who has earned wide acclaim for humorous essays drawn from his life, of “flubberizing the truth for comic effect.”
But Heard is more like the obsessive Inspector Javert than Woodward and Bernstein, who required at least two confirming sources before publishing charges in The Washington Post.
Consider his investigation of the Sedaris story “Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities.” Heard does not dispute that 12-year-old David took guitar lessons from a short musician in Raleigh. Instead, he asserts that the teacher, whom Sedaris calls Mr. Mancini, was not the quirky homophobe the story makes him out to be. His proof: a former student of the same instructor who tells him, “My favorite recollections of the character represented as Mr. Mancini are not the same” as Sedaris’.
Heard also has a problem with the story “Go Carolina,” in which Sedaris asserts that his speech therapy class in elementary school had as much to do with identifying nascent homosexuals as correcting lisps. “None of the therapy students were girls,” Sedaris writes. “They were all boys like me who kept movie star scrapbooks and made their own curtains.”
To debunk this cruel hoax, Heard quotes John Mallette, Sedaris’ principal at Brooks Elementary School in Raleigh: “I don’t understand why he thinks we would make decisions about a speech class based on such factors. I’m sorry it seemed that way to him.”
It is a tribute to our school system that Mallette suggests greater insight into the literary process than Heard when he notes that people can see the same situation differently. All literaturewhether fiction or nonfictionassigns meaning to experience. Writers do not simply amass facts; they use their knowledge, experience and belief systems to sift and organize them. That’s why, for example, the liberal Nation and conservative National Review can offer very different accounts of the same set of facts.
Bottom line: That’s how the class seemed to Sedaris.
Or maybe not. In truth, Heard has more than one source to support his accusations, an unimpeachable witness named David Sedaris.
Heard’s articlewhich appears in the March 19 issue of The New Republic contains many confessional quotes:
“I exaggerate wildly for the sake of the story,” Sedaris told The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. “Mostly in dialogue.”
“I couldn’t exaggerate at all,” Sedaris once complained about an Esquire magazine assignment to report on life at a Phoenix morgue. “It gave me a whole new appreciation for people who can honestly tell the truth, because people didn’t always say what I wanted them to.”
“Everything in `Naked’ was true,” he told the webzine GettingIt in 1999. “I mean, I exaggerate. But all the situations were true.”
Heard declares that at least one scene from “Naked"in which Sedaris gets bitten by a naked patient at Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh while working there as a volunteer in the 1970sis not true. He knows this because Sedaris told him. The author also told Heard he had concocted a key scene and other details in his story about the guitar teacher.
Two outright fabrications in four books of essays: “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim” (2004), “Me Talk Pretty One Day” (2000), “Holidays on Ice,” (1997) and “Naked” (1997). (Sedaris’ first book, 1994’s “Barrel Fever,” is a collection of short fiction and essays.)
I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more and, I expect, neither would Sedaris’ fans. While even Heard admits Sedaris’ essays are all based in fact, we know Sedaris is no Edward R. Murrow. How? Because he told us so. Besides, life may be stranger than fiction, but it’s rarely as funny. Exaggeration and embellishment are what allow humor to suggest larger truths.
In fairness to Heard, full disclosure is important. But so are a sense of scale and context. His investigation of Sedaris’ work might have been useful without his prosecutorial swagger and damning headline. Unlike the infamous fabricators Heard also mentions in his article, James Frey and Stephen Glass, Sedaris has never tried to deceive his readers. We’re all in on the joke.
Still I wait with bated breath for Heard’s next investigation. Perhaps he’ll expose the pope’s Catholic upbringing, the central role cows play in the production of ice cream or Derek Jeter’s womanizing. Oh the un-wonders that await us!
ABOUT THE WRITER
J. Peder Zane is the book-review editor of the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer. Readers may send him e-mail at pzane AT newsobserver.com.