Monday, June 23, 2008

Turn and Face the Strange

Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, used to deliver a lecture in which he told of his relationship with an author named C.P. Colby, who had written a children's book of ghost stories and buried-treasure tales called Strangely Enough! According to Chabon (who has a framed poster of Jackie Robinson in his office), he heard from his local librarian that Colby lived in his hometown, Columbia, Maryland, so the ten-year-old Chabon sought him out and found Colby's house.

This story caught my eye when I read it in Bookforum because I too was a fan of Strangely Enough!, and I read and re-read my copy with that odd clamshell with a human eye on the cover, even though I could never quite figure out what the entry called Hessian Booty was supposed to be about. But other stories, about the day (May 19, 1780) when the New England sky went dark or the ghostly girl named Lavender or the painting of a castle in which the light in one window went out every hundred years, were wonderful reads for an eight-year-old.

Chabon met Colby just one time, but it was long enough, he said, to learn that he was really a Holocaust survivor named Joseph Adler who was working on a memoir of the death camps. Chabon even described the number Colby had tattooed on his arm. Much later, as he said in his lecture, Adler's book came out, but he was soon exposed as a fraud - Adler was really a Nazi named Viktor Fischer who escaped Germany after the war and stole the identity and papers of a late Jew named Joseph Adler.

That's all lies. There was never any Holocaust memoir by a Joseph Adler, or a Viktor Fischer. The real C.P. Colby was named C.P. Colby and fought for the U.S. in World War II, then settled in Briarcliff Manor, New York. He never met Michael Chabon, who was spinning a historical fiction as made-up as the Yiddish Policemen's Union, although he never let on to the people hearing his lectures that any of this was untrue.

Perhaps this was supposed to be some sort of sly commentary on the stories in Strangely Enough! Some of them were undoubtedly true; the dark day in New England is corroborated by that most rigorous bastion of accuracy, Wikipedia. But there is also a story involving a talking cat, and one in which the devil himself shows up at church and begins a fistfight with the minister. I mean, come on. The book does get frustrating after a while, because the obvious legends are treated with the same reverence as the pieces that are true, or could be true. I imagine this revelation of being tricked by an ostensibly serious author came as quite a revelation to little Mike Chabon.

After reading the analysis of the Chabon fantasia a couple of years ago in Bookforum magazine, I asked my mother to dig up my old copy of Strangely Enough! and send it to me. She did, and I read it eagerly before passing it along to my older son, Jack, who also began reading it - and promptly lost it.

But last weekend, on Father's Day, Jack gave me another copy of Strangely Enough! that he had found online somewhere. It was the best present I got.

And everything in this post is true.


Pike said...

Wait. What on Earth does this have to do with SNL?

Pike said...

(See what I did there?)

T. Nawrocki said...

Chabon also wrote "Wonder Boys," the movie version of which starred Tobey Maguire, who hosted SNL on April 15, 2000.