Books

'Bunk' Joins the Dots Between Barnum and Trump

Kevin Young painstakingly presents the history of hoaxes and why we keep falling for the same old shtick.

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

Graywolf Press

Mar 2018

Other

"Fake News" isn't really a new thing. As long as there has been the media, there's been a spin doctor waiting to bend the truth like a pretzel. Or just out-and-out lie. Kevin Young has taken this subject and forensically examined it in a way that redefines the term "exhaustive". Clocking in at a chunky 576 pages, Bunk goes from P. T. Barnum to D. J. Trump and takes in all the points in between. All of them.

This is not an easy read. Facts are layered upon facts, quotations on quotations, which can often make your head spin. Scribbling notes in the margins may help the reader keep track. This could easily have been a collection of National Enquirer-style "monkey colonies on the moon" stories in a lurid cover, designed to be sold in in bargain book stores in the holiday season, but Young has turned it into a unique and definitive work. Unfortunately, in his quest for gravitas, he has stuffed the book full of references and quotations, many of which add little to the content. It's almost as if Young is so desperate for Bunk to be taken seriously that he's sacrificed readability for making sure everyone understands that his research is credible.

There is much to enjoy here, though. The chapter on Barnum is worth the price of the book alone and Young occasionally raises a smile with a natty turn of phrase – I particularly enjoyed his observation on The Bowery Theatre – a New York venue, noted for topical plays and satires, which he describes as "a nineteenth-century Saturday Night Live."

Sometimes, you may find yourself slightly exasperated. For example, the etymology of the word "diddling" seems to go on for page after page. There's exhaustive and then there's overkill. Possibly in an attempt to soften the edges of a painstakingly researched tome, he occasionally lapses into almost cringe worthy wordplay. "Was the Vale of Triads also a veil?" he asks, while discussing the Moon Hoax. Few readers would be able to get past that line without a sigh, I'm sure.

One of the strengths of the book, however, is how Young manages to cover all the basses. Everything from Piltdown Man hoax to Michael Finkels "True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa" (a bizarre and fascinating document of identity theft) is analysed in exhaustive detail. He also shines a light on the way that race plays its part in some of the most brazen examples of "Fake News" – from "Ashbury Ben The Leopard Boy" through to Rachel Dolezal, a white, American former civil rights activist who famously passed herself off as black in 2015. "Blacker Than Thou" is the standout chapter of the book and Young's writing becomes much sharper and focused here. It's as if the rest of the book was the preamble to this main event. He examines the concept of "blackness" and his work here crackles with energy and his aphorisms really hit home – "Rachel Dolezal could be conspicuously outraged all the time, because she didn't have to save any energy for just being herself" -- compresses a sensitive and convoluted story into just one sentence.

Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump dominates the ending of Bunk. At times, Young seems almost in awe of the way Trump can manipulate the truth until it's unrecognizable and still come up smiling (or pouting) and the way that he rose to power in spite of being ill equipped and lacking in any kind of political expertise. You don't need to be an expert or to have undertaken the masterful research that Young has to make a direct comparison with the POTUS and Barnum, but it's thanks to that research (and a healthy dose of righteous indignation) that Young is able to contextualize Trump's gestures and draw direct parallels with the man who made a fortune by slight of hand and obfuscation. Young writes:

"Trump too bears other similarities to Barnum: both endured and employed bankruptcies; both also ran for office (Barnum unsuccessfully); both planted fake news stories as a matter of course. Trump also watched the burning down of his symbolic American Museum, which is to say, his casino".

In conclusion, Young declares, "What Trump really heralds, is a time when there are no more experts" and it's on that simple sentence that this entire book, hangs.

Bunk is by turns groundbreaking, fascinating and annoying. What started off as a "slim meditation" on hoaxers has ballooned into what will certainly be, the go-to reference on the subject. The fine line between blandly presenting facts and writing in a light-hearted, conversational tone is blurred on occasion, but we have to forgive Young, here. Instead of creating a sensational, supermarket bought throwaway, Bunk has turned into a thought-provoking and comprehensive piece of work.

8
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