MEMOIR VERSUS NOVEL: CROSS MY HEART & HOPE TO DIE

That’s it. I demand a recall. I want my novel back. All copies should be sent to me with a self-addressed stamped envelope. Some changes need to be made.

You can tell my novel is a novel because it says so right on the cover, in smaller print. It’s called Puff: a novel. I always lower my voice when I say the “novel” part. It’s like a disclaimer. Like the old Dragnet show’s opening: The story you are about to see is true; the names have been changed to protect the innocent. In other words, a fictional pack of lies.

But after James Frey’s bold stand on national TV, where he defended his brilliant memoir A Million Little Pieces as having emotional truth, we humble novelists have been given a new lease on life. Emotional truth is what we do. We now have the status to go with it. From this day forth, we shall be known as: memoirists.

So that’s it. I am recalling all copies of my novel like a faulty intake valve on a Chrysler LeBaron. Hereafter, Puff, (Harper Perennial 288 pages) my story of two good-for-nothing brothers trying to score some pot in the middle of the worst blizzard to ever blow through Boston, will be re-designated as a memoir. It meets all the requirements of a memoir: It seems to be real, the main character speaks in the first person (very important) and it has enough emotional truth to beat the band. Also, death hangs over every scene like a portable guillotine. What more could be asked of a memoir? And the fact of all facts is that a memoir makes a lot more money than a novel and if there’s one thing we nov—I mean memoirists need, it’s money.

So enough of this “raise your right hand and repeat after me” crap. They’re ALL memoirs. And unlike Bill Clinton, James Frey and a whole lot of other folks who publish memoirs, I’m admitting that some of my memoir is made up. I may be the first to do this. The first to come forward. The first to come clean.

This much is indisputable: I was in the middle of the Blizzard of ’78. I had a van. I had a brother. And we would have climbed Mount Washington in our jockstraps for a bag of weed. An open and shut case: Puff—a memoir.

“But how much of this yarn is actually true, Bob?” I was asked at every stop on mybook tour.

“67.6 percent,” was my usual glib reply, but then I started to wonder if the real figure was something much higher. So I brought in interns to pore over the pages with a fine-tooth comb. The amount of emotional truth they uncovered was staggering.

But we novelists, excuse me—memoirists, who work in first person use what is called in the trade: stand-ins. My stand-in in Puff is John Gullivan. People who knew me twenty-five years ago would swear John was me. Same with Gully, the stand-in for my brother Jimmy. You can close your eyes and hear him. I’ve got stand-ins for teachers, priests, cops, cats and knife-wielding maniacs.

And the greatest thing about stand-ins is that they only portray the interesting parts of your life. My stand-in may be me, but he’s the hot-shit version of me. Gone is the longwinded talk show I perform all day for the benefit of my family and anyone else who walks through our door. My stand-in talks sparingly, saying exactly the right thing at the right time. I imagine a lot of A Million Little Pieces is like that. So when does a substituted piece of dialogue cross the bridge into Liar Land? Who gives a fried frappe?

Only books require this burden of truth. We don’t bat an eye at reality TV and its multiple takes. We didn’t ask Tobey Maguire if that was really him swinging around in the Spidey suit. We didn’t ask the dinks in Bush’s White House a damn thing. But books? For books we demand a polygraph test.

It’s the first person stuff that does this. Writing in the first person lends authenticity to the piece, makes everything immediate. I did these things, it calmly announces. It was me. I saved the beagle from drowning. I had sex with Aunt Marlene. I got kicked out of altar boys for laughing during mass. First person. The author and the main character are assumed to be one. Is Salinger not Caulfield? Is Twain not Huck? Is Frey not Frey?

So here’s my confession: Some of the dialogue in Puff is (sob, sniff) completely made up—I’m admitting this now. For instance, page 228: In the scene where the brothers finally fight their way to the pot-dealer’s house, interrupting his afternoon TV watching, he invites them in out of the cold with: “You wanna know what’s happening? Speed Racer’s happening, my friends, followed by Kimba the White fucking Lion! Come in, come in, come in!” But, as every Bostonian of a certain age knows, Channel 56’s everyday lineup in 1978 had Kimba on at 3:30 followed by Speed Racer at 4. I switched the order because it had a better beat. I’m so sorry.

And later, when the same pot-dealer learns of the brother’s losing their mother only hours before, he says: “Cancer? That’s some harsh shit, man. Had an uncle died of cancer. Sonuvabitch looked like a bag of fucking assholes when he died.”Then he gives the boys a little something to get them through their troubling time. Except that the guy who I modeled the pot-dealer after never had an uncle who died of cancer. It’s a lie. He gained the uncle when he went from being a mere stand-in to becoming a real character, with a real life. I hang my head in shame.

“Okay Bob,” you say, picking apart my argument, “what about that scene where your brother disrupts his own induction into the Naval Reserve, knocks over a pitcher of ice water, calls the commanding officer a “real long descriptive name ending in Cub Scout” and ends up getting chased through Boston’s waterfront by Military Police—was that all real, Bob? Did your brother really do all that?”

Sadly, I must answer no. My brother never did any of that. I did. Word for word. It made more sense to give it to Gully. Memoirs are funny like that. You pick and choose.

It doesn’t matter that Twain never rafted down the Mississippi with an escaped slave and, in a crisis of conscience, set the slave free. It doesn’t matter because Huck Finn did all those things and Huck Finn is as real as the air all around us. Same with James Frey. So let’s just slap a BASED ON A TRUE STORY on it like they used to do on made-for-TV movies and end it once and for all. Novels are done. Novels are cassettes. Memoirs are the new novels. It even sounds better coming off the tongue.

Of course, some of these memoirs, though laden with emotional truth they may be, will be far more “fictional” than others. The customer has a right to know. I propose we devise a system, a Fiction-O-Meter if you will, and rate the veracity of the memoir right on the cover. What would noted memoirists like Wally Lamb score? 65-70? What about Richard Russo? Toni Morrison? John Irving? Don’t make me laugh.

On my book’s cover you can safely print: 73% true. That’s pretty good. The bible should have it so good.

One thought on “MEMOIR VERSUS NOVEL: CROSS MY HEART & HOPE TO DIE”

  1. I hope you didn’t use up all your good truths suitable for fiction for only one memoir. Your public deserves more. I want to hear the about the stand-in for puff. I have a feeling it was satan.

Leave a Reply