Longlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction
“There Kevin Young goes again, giving us books we greatly need, cleverly disguised as books we merely want. Unexpectedly essential.”—Marlon James
Award-winning poet and critic Kevin Young tours us through a rogue’s gallery of hoaxers, plagiarists, forgers, and fakers—from the humbug of P. T. Barnum and Edgar Allan Poe to the unrepentant bunk of JT LeRoy and Donald J. Trump. Bunk traces the history of the hoax as a peculiarly American phenomenon, examining what motivates hucksters and makes the rest of us so gullible. Disturbingly, Young finds that fakery is woven from stereotype and suspicion, race being the most insidious American hoax of all. He chronicles how Barnum came to fame by displaying figures like Joice Heth, a black woman whom he pretended was the 161-year-old nursemaid to George Washington, and What Is It?, an African American man Barnum professed was a newly discovered missing link in evolution.
Bunk then turns to the hoaxing of history and the ways that forgers, plagiarists, and journalistic fakers invent backstories and falsehoods to sell us lies about themselves and about the world in our own time, from pretend Native Americans Grey Owl and Nasdijj to the deadly imposture of Clark Rockefeller, from the made-up memoirs of James Frey to the identity theft of Rachel Dolezal. In this brilliant and timely work, Young asks what it means to live in a post-factual world of “truthiness” where everything is up for interpretation and everyone is subject to a pervasive cynicism that damages our ideas of reality, fact, and art.
Actor and audiobook veteran Willis demonstrates a large capacity for vocal nuance in his reading of Young's history of fraud and fakery in American history. The early chapters cover dense historical topics that may be esoteric to a general audience, but Willis renders the material as approachable as possible. As the book's focus shifts to more recent instances of fraud, journalistic fabrications, and outright lies by public figures, Young's overall thesis that hoaxes often reflect an agenda to manipulate or hijack larger conversations about such issues as race, class, and gender becomes easier to follow. The highlight of Willis's performance is his projection of Young's indignation at Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who posed as African-American and became a civil rights organizer. This is a satisfying audiobook that hooks listeners in the latter half. A Graywolf hardcover.