The cop bent his head down and poked his flashlight at me. He had dark, close-cropped hair, and was maybe in his mid-thirties. I dropped my hand from the door handle. Then he leaned through Chris’s window shade more and played his light over our bizarre array of passengers – four generations of black folk in the backseat, and a Chinese family in the trunk. His face crinkled up in utter bafflement. Either we were human traffickers with a payload of Asians or a tour bus covering the last leg of the Underground Railroad.
A scene in one of my all-time favorite movies, They Might Be Giants (1971): George C. Scott, a former judge under the delusion he’s Sherlock Holmes, heads through New York City with his shrink (whose name just happens to be Dr. Watson) for his final confrontation with Moriarty. As they march along, they’re joined by people they’ve met in their adventures over the past few days – a telephone operator, a hermit couple fond of topiary, a cab driver, then by strangers, more and more people joining their throng, one by one, a human snowball picking up people as it moves along. I thought of that scene towards the end of this piece.
The snowball starts when Rothbart boards a bus from Detroit to Buffalo on Valentine’s day to surprise Lauren Hill – not the singer, just a girl he knew from high school and re-met briefly over Christmas break – and move their acquaintanceship to the next level. On the bus he meets Vernon, a 110-year-old (verified by state ID) headed to visit his great-granddaughter, and they team up. Once they arrive in Buffalo, Rothbart meets up with casual friend Chris who steals wheels for a living, and heads to the bar where Lauren works. She shoots him down, of course, but we’re just getting started. Throw in Vernon’s family, a craving for some take-out Chinese food, and a healthy dose of everyone who’s ever been shot down pulling for him, and you’ll be fastening your seat belt for the ride through one magical night. It’s a blast to read, rolling along like you’d expect a human snowball to do.
The piece is listed as non-fiction and appears in Rothbart’s collection of essays, My Heart is an Idiot; most of the other essays also concern brief encounters with heretofore strangers on the road. Rothbart seems to lead a very interesting life. It’s fun to read about. But – and here we go back to what I perceive to be the general direction of this opening section of the 2014 Pushcart read – what is truth?
The following disclaimer appears at the beginning of Rothbart’s essay collection in which this essay appears – but not anywhere in the Pushcart anthology:
“This book is a memoir. Occasionally, certain aspects—characters, locales, scenes, names of businesses, and bits of dialogue—have been altered, amalgamated, reordered, refashioned, omitted, or even fictionalized to conceal identities and preserve narrative flow. But even as small creative liberties have been taken, all of these stories are grounded in truth. Enjoy!”
In an interview with Jed Lipinski of CapitalNewYork.com, Rothbart elaborates further:
“Well, I think of them as essays because they all happened. They’re all true stories. In the essay ‘The Human Snowball, it just works better that the girl at the Chinese food restaurant got into college that night instead of like two days later. Does that make it fiction? Not really in my mind. But for the most part, if I made changes it was to protect people’s identities. Plus, a lot of this shit happened 10 or 15 years ago. You remember the feeling of being there and roughly how things went down. But I can’t remember what anyone said to each other verbatim.”
I’m again left confused: There are ways of handling uncertainty. As for modifications: If it isn’t that big a deal, why change it in the first place? I always thought the idea of non-fiction, the selling point, was that this interesting, instructive, humorous, or history-changing thing really happened; that’s an implied contract between writer and reader. Now I’m discovering that if the incident isn’t interesting/etc. enough, it’s ok to change it. I thought that’s what fiction was for. In fact, I’ve heard advice to fiction writers to change it up a little when writing from true life, to improve narrative flow, add symbolic undertones, or increase character complexity. Apparently there’s some tipping point, and until you get there, you can still call it non-fiction. The tipping point seems fairly arbitrary to me.
I read (or used to, at least) a lot of medical non-fiction – I call them “terminal illness books” and “How I Became a Doctor Books.” Many of those state up front details have been changed to protect people who aren’t the subject of the book. I read them more for medical information (and sometimes humor) than for “story value” so I never gave it a second thought. So why am I balking now? Maybe it’s because truth has become so distorted in so many areas of society, I feel like when someone says, “This is non-fiction,” they have a duty to present non-fiction. Maybe I’m just aging into a cantankerous old coot. Maybe I see more clearly now how damaging Truthiness can be.
If the girl got into college two days later, say so. Yes, it is a different story. If you want to write the one where she gets into college on the same night as everything else that happens – to turn it into a “this magic night” kind of story, the kind of story you wish had happened, the kind of story people want to believe happened, against all odds – call it fiction. Because that’s what it is.