Online Edition: Winter 2001/2002

I Thought My Father Was God by Paul Auster

I Thought My Father Was God

And Other True Tales from NPR's National Story Project

edited by Paul Auster

Henry Holt ($25)

by Sarah Fox

I Thought My Father Was God anthologizes 179 stories (plus one story quoted in its entirety in the Introduction) culled from the 4,000 Paul Auster received after inviting listeners of National Public Radio to participate in the "National Story Project" by sending "true stories that sounded like fiction." It was Auster's wife, the novelist Siri Hustvedt, who encouraged him to reimagine the project after his initial trepidation at the thought of becoming a regular contributor to the program. She suggested, instead, that he "Get people to sit down and write their own stories." A grand idea, and it worked.

In an interview last fall on NPR, Auster launched the idea on the air. He offered the following guidelines:

The stories had to be true, and they had to be short, but there would be no restrictions as to subject matter or style. What interested me most. . . 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. . . . All listeners were welcome to contribute, and I promised to read every story that came in. People would be exploring their own lives and experiences, but at the same time they would be part of a collective effort, something bigger than just themselves. With their help, I said, I was hoping to put together an archive of facts, a museum of American reality.

I quote at length here because what he asked for is precisely what he got, and then some--this initial request was an exact premonition of what the project would become. Every month Auster chose the best five or six stories to read on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. Of this task, he claims, "It has been singularly rewarding work, one of the most inspiring tasks I have ever undertaken." At the same time, reading close to 100 stories at a single sitting was often disquieting, occasions when Auster "felt that the entire population of America [had] walked into my house."

He also declares that of the 4,000 stories he read, "most have been compelling enough to hold me until the last word." Reading this collection, you don't doubt him for a moment. You may, in fact, wish you could get your hands on the whole pile yourself.

In a typically eloquent introduction to this collection, Auster reports on how his own beliefs about the elusive nature of fate, the passions and coincidences overwhelming our lives, the inevitable and lasting connections made between human beings--whether family members or complete strangers--all have been enriched and confirmed by the stories he's read and collected. It was his idea to develop a book, which he felt would "be necessary to do justice to the project." And for those of us who missed most of the weekend broadcasts, we owe him our deep appreciation. As great as it would be to hear the sepulchral resonance of Paul Auster's voice reading your very own words over the radio, part of the book's magic is its insistence that the reader imagine the voice of the story herself, or that she even occasionally fashion her own voice to it.

The democracy of the book is admirable, but doesn't feel brassy or obligatory. "I never once gave a thought to demographic balance," Auster writes. "I selected the stories solely on the basis of merit. . . . The numbers just fell out that way, and the results were determined by blind chance." If we know even a little about Paul Auster, we know how much of his own work is inspired by, or assembled around, blind chance.

And to know (even if only a little) the work of Paul Auster is to love him. His generosity as a writer of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and his finesse with the English language as well as the French from which he's translated volumes of poetry and prose, have already earned him a seat in the pantheon of Great American Writers. Whether he's writing a novel, an essay, or memoir heightened to philosophical inquiry, you'd be hard put to find a writer whose sentences so consistently and effortlessly unfold down the page. I'd pay good money for his grocery lists. (Here's my story: the first time I saw Paul Auster was at a book convention in Chicago. He was smoking a cigarillo, and his eyes penetrated his surroundings utterly. I thought Paul Auster was God.)

We know Paul Auster writes "literature," that he is a scholar and advocate of often under-represented, always challenging literary works and writers. His introduction to The Random House Anthology of 20th Century French Poetry is among the finest essays you'll read about these poets and their development in relation to modern and post-modern American--and World--poetry. Auster began his career as a poet, and his five poetry collections distinguish him in this field as well. His numerous collections of translations--of Jacques Dupin, Mallarmé, Joubert, and others--are highly regarded and further express his magnanimity as both gatekeeper of and contributor to world literature. As a fiction writer, for which he is best known, Auster's novels frequently defy the boundaries of genre, with stylized sentences that come from a sensitive, poetic imagination tuned to the round nuances of thought and inquiry more than speech. As if this weren't enough, Auster has also sallied forth into filmmaking, co-directing and writing scripts for the successful "Smoke" and "Blue in the Face" as well as writing and directing, more recently, "Lulu on the Bridge." You'd think Paul Auster was God.

Having thus established himself at the very pinnacle of literary excellence, we can forgive him for branding most of the stories collected in I Thought My Father Was God "crude and awkward. Only a small portion of it could qualify as 'literature.'" He goes on to try to define the stories in general as "dispatches, reports from the front lines of personal experience." But reading these stories I found myself disagreeing with Auster's assessment, for I was frequently surprised by the literary savvy, even if unintentional, in evidence here: an instinct for building suspense and narrative arc, for illuminating sometimes small but significant details, for discovering--in the telling--effective metaphors, for the subtlety with which these metaphors became realized and the gentleness with which the symbolism of certain objects or events was given up to the reader. Emily Dickinson famously proclaimed that she knew she was reading "great" literature when she felt as if the top of her head was coming off. I advise you to hold onto your hats as you delve into this collection. It's an emotional--even physical--response Dickinson alludes to, clearly not a cerebral one, and Auster himself confesses "It is difficult for me to imagine that anyone could read through this book from beginning to end without once shedding a tear; without once laughing out loud."

The "literature" question is, ultimately, unimportant in light of the book's ultimate accomplishment. Is Studs Terkel's American Dreams literature? In many ways this book recalls Terkel and his own egalitarian pursuit of the real stories of the American people. In other ways, the stories here--all written long before September 11, 2001--will reinforce our present craving for solidarity, and our attention to the plights and miracles of the individual. The book is divided into ten sections, and one of them is devoted entirely to "War." Astonishing stories of near-death, first-hand recollections from the trenches, the killing fields themselves; devastating loss, miraculous recovery--in sum, a visceral depiction of how life alters, how consciousness shifts and sharpens, how surreal everything becomes inside the landscape of war. And as Auster says, all of the stories--whether about World War II, Vietnam, fighting cancer, seeing ghosts, lost love, loneliness--seem to come from "the front lines," the battle zones of life on earth.

Ironically, however, the majority of the stories here are not focused on the narrator, but rather on someone else, a person who has impressed or changed or inspired the narrator. One outstanding example is "A Shot in the Light," by Lion Goodman--among the longest stories in the book. Goodman's narrative revolves around the 24 hours or so during which he was shot four times in the head by a man he had picked up hitchhiking, how he struggled to accept his fate while simultaneously trying to sustain his life, and the dialogue he was eventually able to arouse between himself and his attacker, a man named Ray. Through the recounting of this bizarre conversation--during which Goodman attempts both to calm Ray and convince him to head toward a hospital--we learn more biographical information about Ray himself than we ever learn about Goodman: his upbringing in East L.A., his alcoholic and abusive father, his stint in the army, his drug dealing, time spent in jail, the events leading up to his decision to rob and kill Goodman. This story sheds light, in its generosity and through personal experience, on the whole cycle of human oppression and criminal behavior better than any statistic or media analysis possibly could. And what fiction writer would dare name a character who survived such an ordeal Lion Goodman? Is truth stranger than fiction? Of course it is.

Contributors range in age from 20 to 90, and their stories cover the entire spectrum of 20th-century American life. Some of the stories are grandiose while others are more quiet but no less extraordinary. Whether recalling--decades later and still reeling--a father's unexpected slap; or musing on the significance of a Christmas tree ornament; or praising the service of an old Ford; or detailing continued remorse over a twenty-year-old act of racial cruelty; or describing outrageous encounters with strangers, spirits, animals, God (once in the guise of George Burns), or simply engagements with memory, joy, grief, fear, amazement, the book touches on the entire gamut of human experience from people of all walks of life.

What provoked people to write these stories? What provokes us to read them? I think it's not terribly different from what provoked us to remain glued to our television sets in the aftermath of the events of September 11th; or what has made memoir the best-selling literary genre of recent times. When we tell our stories, share them, and in turn confront the stories of others, we validate our existence and its meaning. We attempt to define ourselves, give edge to our experiences, by being witnessed and by bearing witness. This book has urged me to sift through my own inventory, try to select which story I might have sent and how I might have presented it. Undoubtedly, it will do this to all of its readers. Perhaps it will inspire us to recall a story that's been buried for years, and to tell it, or write it down, to learn about ourselves through it, to discover how we are connected by our experience to everyone else on the planet. We all have stories--they are what make up a life.

The intimacy these particular storytellers grant us makes the book all the more inviting. One writer, for example, begins her piece with the following statement: "Here is my story, the story I tell you when I know you well enough." In fact many authors begin with such flourish it becomes impossible to turn away. "Pork Chop" by Eric Wynn, starts, "Early in my career as a crime-scene cleaner. . ." and ends with "'Well hell!. . . Ya smell just like a pork chop!'" Here's another one, from "The Anonymous Deciding Factor," by Holly Caldwell Campanella, "I come from a family of morticians." Bruce Edward Hall ($1,380 Per Night, Double Occupancy") includes in his story a detail worthy of Don DeLillo: "She likes to chew on fingernails but doesn't want to ruin her own…so I give her mine." Among my favorite pieces is "Taking Leave" by Joe Miceli, in which the author--a Muslim prisoner whose father had only recently been released from jail himself--describes his mixed feelings about being "freed" for a day to attend the funeral of his beloved grandmother. His poignant conclusion--that nobody, even if uncuffed for a brief ride back to the jail, is free from grief and loss--demonstrates a deeply spiritual and insightful mind at work.

There are so many stories, so many incredible narratives, and there isn't a single one that elicits doubt from the reader as to the veracity of its author's telling. This is one of those books you simply can't check out of the library because it'll end up long overdue, you may even be willing to lose your library card to keep it, and so everybody--not least the librarians who've been hiding it under their table for surreptitious glimpses--will be terribly upset with you. It's one of those books you simply have to own, and one--despite its bulk--you'll never be tempted to part with. It will sit on your shelf alongside Vasari's Lives of the Artists and The Golden Bough and Alan Lomax's Folk Songs of North America, the big-time keepers you occasionally pick up on your way to the bathroom, and end up hours later still holding open in your lap. This is the book you can buy for every single person on your gift list, from the highest to the lowest brow. It is, at last, a genuine People's History of the United States, written by the people themselves, a 180-voiced chorus of women and men, young and old, rural and urban and everything in between, singing the body electric.

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Winter 2001/2002 Table of Contents