Barney Shivers didn't have much use for fiction, not at first.
Whenever Rita Lumpkin, whose desk was next to his, spoke glowingly of some novel she'd reviewed, he reacted with baffled but polite indifference. More than once, she actually thrust a book into his hands for him to read. But Barney seldom got beyond the first few pages. He was honest about it, though. He'd thank Rita for her kindness while reminding her that fiction didn't click for him. He couldn't trust a story without attribution -- "I guess it's just an old reporter's habit," were the words he used. Rita simply smiled and tucked whatever book it was back into her bag.
She was fond of Barney, truth be told -- but why? He thought differently, acted differently, and never opened up about his past. Was he hiding something? Had some other paper fired him? Had he been in prison? At times she thought she heard a tiny accent when he spoke. Was this the remnant of a childhood speech impediment? Or did he grow up in some far-off land, not speaking English? He was an enigma. But in an odd way that appealed to her. She sensed that locked inside him was an unquenched innocence; a sweet, uncomplicated goodness rare in men. She pondered how to bring that out.
One day, while sifting through old papers in her desk, she found this yellowed clipping from the New York Times:
FALSE MEMOIR OF HOLOCAUST IS CANCELED
A man, whose memoir about his experience during the Holocaust was to have been published in February, has admitted that his story was embellished...once again a New York publisher and Oprah Winfrey were among those fooled by a too-good-to-be-true story...
Rita slid the relic onto Barney's desk. She'd attached a little Post-It note -- "Another kind of fiction not to like!" -- and signed it with her R initial inside a heart.
The instant Barney saw the thing his eyes lit up. He'd been working quietly on a memoir of his own, but suddenly saw that memoir, once the noblest of genres, would be forever tainted by the mendacity of fraudsters like this Holocaust guy. Barney's story was one-hundred percent honest. Still, it would be harder now to sell, especially since parts of it transcended normal, everyday experience. It would fall on unbelieving eyes. Yet he needed the income it would bring. So it might be smarter, it occurred to him, to switch gears and write a stupid novel -- or perhaps a not-so-stupid one. A broad smile stretched its way across his face. Barney Shivers, novelist? Why not? He began to lose himself in reverie, like Walter Mitty.
Rita jarred him back into the moment. "Barney, dear, do you have something on your mind?"
"You just handed me the best idea I ever had," he answered plainly, beaming.
"Oh? And what would that be?" Rita cooed, thinking he had liked her little heart.
"I've decided I should write a novel," Barney said.
"But you've never even read a novel. What brings this sudden interest on, pray tell?"
"Memoir's dead," said Barney. "Your little clipping made me think. What should be true has been befouled by monetary greed, by thirst for fame, by mental laziness. Fiction presents another avenue. I've been slow to recognize its worth, and must atone for that. But there's a book inside me, Rita, bottled up. I only need to get it down on paper."
"You leave me speechless, Barney!" Rita said. "But if you're serious, and I can help with editing or anything, just say the word."
And that is how it all began. Barney and Rita's collaboration brought them closer. Rita thought it might be love; Barney wasn't sure. But their friendship, even as it warmed and deepened, was but a side story. What mattered more to both of them was to make the novel a success.
Within a few short weeks -- a heartbeat, really, in the world of publishing -- From The Nest Of Sasquatch was already taking shape. (That was Rita's title, by the way; Barney's first idea was Bigfoot Boy.) It told of a boy raised with sasquatches in the wilds of British Columbia. Billy Baldwin, only six years old, wandered off a hiking trail while camping with his family near Lake Okanagan. Searchers couldn't find him; he was given up for dead. But little Billy lived! He followed footprints to a hidden cave where, miraculously, a female sasquatch happened to be grieving for her baby who had just died. This she-ape, named Marbluk, adopted Billy as her human stepson, wordlessly instructing him in the ways of the woods and ultimately returning him to civilization on his twenty-first birthday.
The story seemed implausible, impossible even. And yet, against all odds, the manuscript climbed swiftly from the bottom of the slush pile to the legendary desk of Nan Talese. She snapped it up immediately and launched production. Michiko Kakutani acclaimed it in The New York Times, saying, "Barney Shivers's fresh and lyrical voice delivers a poignant allegory of boy and beast in the forbidding wilds. His theme and artistry are peerless."
Sales took off. Checks poured in. Barney and Rita had arrived. He was now a famous author; she, a whiz-bang editor. They could leave newspapering behind and thrive in loftier, literary circles.
But fortune wasn't through with them, not yet. Michelle Obama read From The Nest Of Sasquatch and recommended it to all her friends, including Oprah Winfrey -- who chose it for her fabled book club.
Oprah invited Barney on her show and he became the apple of her eye. Rita watched proudly from a front-row seat as Oprah heaped praise on what she called the greatest début novel ever. Barney's name became a household word. His face was everywhere: magazines, websites, posters, CNN, the whole routine. Strangers on the sidewalk asked for his autograph.
For a few short days he stood atop the world.
And then he got a call from Nan Talese. She said Oprah wanted him on the show again as soon as possible. Could he do next Tuesday? Immediately the alarm bells rang in Barney's head. Something had to be afoot. But what?
Nan reminded him about James Frey, whose phony memoir called A Million Little Pieces had also been an Oprah's Book Club pick. Then Oprah found him out, summoned him back, and excoriated him for fraud on live TV. "Maybe she's overdue to make another scene; history does tend to repeat itself," Nan suggested.
Barney said he wouldn't have to worry about that. But in a way he actually admired James Frey's cleverness, and how he penned his fake memoir honorably, using his own real name without the trickery of pseudonyms.
Nan said the Oprah people didn't want to bother her unnecessarily -- "You've been through enough already" -- so would Barney please return the call himself?
He did, and was put straight through to Oprah's legal department. There, a Mr. Ringer said he'd read the novel twice and found it "deeply layered, full of hidden secrets." Barney thanked him for the compliment. Then Ringer quickly added, "An important new publicity opening has arisen and we need you in Chicago pronto. How's tomorrow morning sound?"
Things happen fast in television.
And there he was again, on Oprah's stage -- the lights, the cameras, the whole nine yards. The audience greeted his return with warm applause. A few in front waved copies of his book and hollered, "Sasquatch! Sasquatch! We want sasquatch!" But he sensed trouble brewing when Oprah called for quiet.
"Well, now, Barney Shivers..." she commenced, a preachy condescension in her voice. "This certainly is a surprise. I didn't expect to see you again so soon."
"A surprise, you say? You asked me back!"
"This isn't about you, Barney, so let's not get defensive. It's about your... um, your novel," she continued, clucking tut-tut-tut. "Stedman picked it up the other day and noticed something interesting. He said, 'Oprah honey, do you know what this reminds me of? Tarzan Of The Apes! The basic premise is quite similar (a human being raised by apes), except that Shivers's style is far more lucid and more literary than Burroughs's was. But even so... good fiction has to be believable and this, while certainly good writing, simply isn't.' I thought Stedman raised a valid point. What is your opinion, Barney?"
He regarded her with the same blank stare that Sarah Palin used on Charlie Gibson. "In what respect, Oprah?"
"I mean not coming from a normal human childhood, being raised with sasquatches and all..."
"That was only in my novel, for Christ's sake. Not a word of Billy Baldwin's tale is true."
"Don't interrupt me just because I'm onto you," the daytime diva barked. "You didn't grow up knowing what a novel was -- and you want us to believe you somehow crafted one as masterful as this? I don't even think your so-called novel is a work of fiction. I've been hoodwinked enough by now to know a factual memoir when I see one. Calvin, please bring in our special guest!"
With that, the cameras turned stage left to behold four burly zookeeper types leading an enormous hairy beast in chains: a towering primate whose nine-foot height would dwarf Yao Ming; whose half-ton weight would crush a Harley-Davidson; whose cavernous maw would scarf up ten-pound Easter hams and watermelons whole, like gummy bears. The audience gasped in horror -- first at witnessing this fearsome creature, then on hearing its subhuman grunts and breathing in its musky, feral scent. Some ran for the exits.
The only people not scared witless were Oprah and her crew, because they had been briefed, and Barney Shivers, who knew what a sasquatch was. And, more than that, he recognized this sasquatch. This was no ordinary, random specimen captured in B.C. It was Barney's dear adoptive mother, Marbluk, the very one who raised him to adulthood!
Tears of joy filled Barney's eyes. And Marbluk, for her part, no longer strained against her harnesses once she saw him there. She gazed on him with tenderness and alternately licked both hairy nostrils with her hairy tongue, the sasquatch greeting. Barney instinctively returned the sign and they embraced. Misty eyes were everywhere. The audience applauded as the show went to break. It was a trademark Oprah Winfrey moment, engineered to pump emotions up -- and ratings.
It didn't pump up book sales, though. After the commercial, Oprah chided Barney for passing off his true life's story as a work of fiction. She said it proved his lack of character and, more importantly, considering his line of work, imagination. She was nice about it, but the damage was already done. And so his would-be novel's soaring arc was offset by an even faster plunge into oblivion. Unsold copies were withdrawn from circulation, contracts voided, even Barney's WikiPedia page expunged. He paid back all the royalties collected. Rita wouldn't even speak to him.
Humbled and ashamed, Barney was on his own again; a little boy who wandered off his hiking trail -- but with a credit card this time. He sprung for two first-class tickets to Vancouver and went home with Marbluk to her mossy cave. He took along some notebooks and a box of pencils with the thought of someday finishing that memoir, what with all this new material.
-- END --
Giles Selig (a pseudonym) writes anonymously in Rhinebeck, NY. His short fiction and poetry have been published in various print and on-line literary journals, including Chronogram, Pilcrow & Dagger, Medium, Made-Up Words, Laughing Earth Lit, Henry, and Edna; and will soon appear in Light and Dark, Foliate Oak, and other publications. He is a retired advertising/communications executive.