Poet and scholar Kevin Young offers a history of the hoax and a chilling indictment of our current moment in this ambitious book. Bunk opens in the 19th century—the days of P.T. Barnum, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe—as Young pulls back history’s curtain to reveal hoaxes, humbug and circus tents with a sideshow of spiritualism and sensationalism.
But Young is not content to remain in the sepia-toned past. “If all of this sounds familiar,” he writes, “it is because the transformative advent of the penny press most resembles the current change demonstrated, if not caused, by the internet.” Shifting effortlessly from the 19th century to the 21st, Young draws connections between words like swindler, diddling and confidence man and contemporary buzzwords like plagiarism, truthiness and fake news. In both eras, a disenfranchised racial other haunts the discourse.
“The exotic other, the dark double” is a key player in historical and contemporary hoaxes, from the colonialists who donned redface to confuse the British during the Boston Tea Party to Nasdijj, a white man who co-opted a Navajo identity in order to publish a variety of written work in 1999 and the early 2000s. Nasdijj was exposed the very month that James Frey admitted to grossly misrepresenting the facts of his life in his bestselling book A Million Little Pieces. More than simply recounting these incidents and dozens more, Young uses them to facilitate his larger goal: a theory of the hoax itself and the fantasies that it reveals. Like a joke that brings down the house, a hoax unites a cunning speaker with a crowd that wants to be fooled. And today the stakes are higher than ever. Young examines the effects of deception on American politics, literature and everyday life. Long-listed for the National Book Award in nonfiction, Bunk is a powerful, far-reaching read.