The story goes like this: In spring 1999, the American writer Paul Auster (best known for his novel The Music of Chance and the screenplays to Blue in the Face and Smoke) is interviewed on National Public Radio about his new book, Timbuktu. Afterward, the interviewer (Daniel Zwerdling) asks Auster if he’d think about contributing regularly to Zwerdling’s NPR show, Weekend All Things Consideredmaybe write a new story every month or so and read it. No way, thinks Auster, no time, but he’s too polite to say so immediately. So he tells his wife about it when he gets home, and she immediately tells him that he should get other people to send in their stories instead, and he can read the best ones over the air. He’s stunned. He loves the idea. The “NPR National Story Project” is born.
In a way, this anecdotesimple, hinged on a lightning bolt of interventionfits right in with much of I Thought My Father Was God: And Other True Tales From NPR’s National Story Project, which collects 179 of the approximately 4,000 submissions NPR got over the year the project ran. (As editor, Auster promised to consider each one: So much for saving time.) Even though he laid down only two rules at the outsetthe stories had to be true, and they had to be shortAuster had a grand vision for the enterprise. “What interested me most,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “were stories that defied our expectations about the world, anecdotes that revealed the mysterious and unknowable forces at work in our lives, in our family histories, in our minds and bodies, in our souls. In other words, true stories that sounded like fiction.”
Well, truth is always stranger than fiction, and by the lights of this book it’s out thereway out there. Auster received and in large part selected tales of eye-widening, spooky coincidence and improbable irony, seemingly designed to convince you there’s some cosmic superstring connecting us all. But although I Thought My Father Was God does contain at least 20 truly great pieces, there’s a certain monotony to the volume, perhaps induced by Auster’s very ambitions for it. In the end, defying expectations has its own predictability, and the more of these heavy-shoe-dropping endings you read in one sitting, the more you’ll long for a soft pair of slippers.
Broad American preoccupations cut across I Thought My Father Was God: family, ghosts, forbearance in the face of crushing adversity, and especially synchronicitythe sense that we are each our own Sedona, Ariz., of converging mysterious forces (which, like the famed UFO story, is just another expression of American exceptionalism). In “Rescued by God,” for example, Mary Ann Garrett prays for help to get through the flight she’s terrified to takeand a moment later George Burns (whom she’s just seen play the title role in the movie Oh God!) sits across the aisle from her and gives her a big smile. In “A Shot in the Dark,” David Ayres is watching the Peter Sellers movie of the same title with other Marines in a big unlit tent in Vietnam when the lights suddenly come on and one soldier in the audience is seen cradling another, killed by a Viet Cong sniper. And Timothy Ackerman’s “Parallel Lives” details his obsession with his old Illinois house, which he finally revisits only to find that the names
of the family now living there eerily echo names in his own life. Would somebody please tell Rod Serling he’s still dead?
Dreams that come true, day-before premonitions of friends’ deaths, lost objects that resurface mysteriously in one’s life like messages in the Magic 8-Ballthese are the lifeblood of I Thought My Father Was God, and in such critical mass to make even the most defiant materialists start checking under their beds. (People are forever pulling into antique shops and finding things they lost in the sea or off the back of a truck 20 years ago.) Because Auster couldn’t verify the submissions, he had no choice but to trust his listeners. If you read these stories slightly askance, they begin to sound like urban legends; and Auster has the wit to include a few deflating curveballs, such as “The Unicycle,” in which Gordon Lee Stelter hates the West Coast so much he swears he’d peddle a unicycle back East if he had one. But the abandoned unicycle he stumbles upon the very next morning cuts his ankles so badly that, after about 300 feet of peddling, he ends up taking the train instead.
The book is organized into necessarily generic categories: “Animals,” “Dreams,” “Slapstick,” and so forth. Many of the “Family” submissions that Auster has gathered lack the element of incredibility, but they’re ultimately more satisfying without it. Heartwarming Christmas stories make their appearances, but I Thought My Father Was God usually presents families the way they are the other 364 days of the year: balkanized by ancient hatreds, lopsided by power struggles, devastated by revenge and cruelty and laughter. In “A Plate of Peas,” Rick Beyer relates how his grandmother once bribed him in a restaurant to eat peas (the dish he hated the most) as a way to show up his motherand how his mother made him eat them every chance she got thereafter, saying: “You ate them for money. You can eat them for love.”
Tony Powell’s “Your Father Has the Hay Fever,” classified under “Slapstick,” tells the all-too-familiar horror story of a father whose perpetually congested nose ruins every vacation and rules all their lives. And then there’s the often-delusional propaganda families tell themselves, as in Freddie Levin’s “Why I Am Antifur,” about a bigamist uncle who had to shuttle a fur coat between his two wives to keep them both happy:
With Aunt Faye he had twin boys named Erwin and Sherwin. Supposedly, one was brilliant and the other “slow,” but we never knew which was which. Forbidden to ask outright, my brother and I spent hours devising subtle tests that would reveal their true natures, but never with any conclusive results.
Don’t know about you, but for me that brings back memories of long Sunday afternoons held hostage with despised cousins, followed by dinners of strange foods like creamed cabbage and mock-chicken legs.
Auster and NPR seem determined to make sure you read I Thought My Father Was God as a populist artifactNPR with its “National Story Project” branding, which has the ring of a WPA initiative, and Auster with his insistence that these stories are not literature but “something else, something raw and close to the bone…dispatches, reports from the front lines of personal experience.” The effort is strained and misleading. (In fact, Auster has recently admitted to heavily editing some of the contributions.) The collection’s most memorable pieces just happen to be its best-written, toono devices or coincidences, just powerful material and prose so direct it stops time. For instance, “Isolation,” Lucy Hayden’s gorgeous sketch about an alcoholic family that drinks together after the mother’s death and 20 years later is still “floating and rocking back and forth, letting the time pass as we wait for things to get better,” is as good as anything Susan Minot has written on the subject. My favorite might be “South Dakota,” in which Nancy Peavy outlines three generations of womena grandmother who ran a farm while her sheriff husband cheated on her, an aunt whose boyfriend was run out of town by that cheating grandfather, and a rich girl who disappeared from school and about whom Peavy mother and aunt made up New York or Hollywood fantasies until decades later, when they found her bones and those of her aborted fetus next to her in a farm field. And then you see the town under Peavy’s bylineAugusta, Maineand the escape she’s obviously made from South Dakota brings home the abiding misogyny of the place, pulling what seemed like random family history into a breathtakingly tight narrative knot.
So everybody has a story, but maybe not everybody can tell one. The most powerful stories these days, those in the New York Times obituaries of Sept. 11 victims, are, of course, written by professionals who do the interviews and shape the details. While making their bet on authenticity, NPR and Auster forget that any well-told story has power and mystery. Rachel Watson, the author of “My Story” (about happening upon the dying victims of a truck accident in the middle of the desert), puts it best: “What do you do with a story like that? There is no lesson, no moral, barely even an ending. You want to tell it, hear it told, but you don’t know why.” CP