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Truth is Out There

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2016-05-19


Terry Gross' interview program on NPR, "Fresh Air," has been on the air for more than 30 years now, and in many ways, it's the prototypical NPR show — smart, inquisitive, timely, with a host whose curiosity and thoughtfulness seems to bring an extra layer of depth to the program's content. What makes "Fresh Air" so distinctive is the hour-long format, which gives the interviewer room to pursue off-beat or tangential notions and nuances from her guests that often get lost in a typical interviewer-subject exchange. Gross has won numerous awards for her interviewing style throughout her three decades at NPR, and her show is a popular stop for newsmakers, writers, and artists who seem to enjoy the relaxed, long-form style that Gross provides.

I have a few minor quibbles about Gross’ interview style — every once in a while I wish she'd remove some of herself from the proceedings — but they’re very minor, and I look forward to "Fresh Air" when a favorite artist/writer is on the docket. Often I'll tune in to the program with no knowledge of the writer or the book being examined, and it's usually edifying to listen to the exchange. "Fresh Air" has led me to seek out dozens of books and writers over the years, and I recognize that Gross' innate inquisitiveness is solely responsible for fueling my own interest.

Last month I caught an episode of "Fresh Air" about 10 minutes in, and the host (not Terry Gross this time, but her capable substitute Dave Davies) was interviewing a writer about his latest work. I didn't know who the writer was, for I missed the introduction, but I was fascinated by him — he had a great, warm, somewhat familiar voice, and he described the writing process in insightful and illuminating detail. He then read a passage from his book, a particularly savage exchange between a literary agent and a would-be novelist/client, and the passage made me bite my hand and laugh out loud. Who is this guy? I thought. Franzen? David Eggers? Surely this had to be a big-deal writer. I'll reprint the excerpt here, from the NPR transcript, which skewers the pretentiousness of young writers everywhere:

“ So Ted was complimented, neither surprised nor insulted, when his agent Blaugrund let the 667 pages of Ted's manuscript, a Derriden deconstructionist romp titled Magnum Opie, drop with some impressive gravity onto his desk and say, what the hell happens in this crap? Nothing happens. At least when you watch paint dry, the paint dries. That happens. The transformation of paint from we to dry happens. No such luck here, buddy boy. It feels like fake French New Wave to me. Alain Robbe-Grillet wants his money back. I feel like I was hit over the head with a baguette for five hours.
You're welcome, Ted said.
Oh, that's what you're going for, is it? A prostate exam on a page? Well, then mission accomplished.
It's in the surrealist tradition, Ted said.
You mean the narcoleptic tradition. That's fine and dandy, Professor Morpheus, but before you get to surreal, you have to get real. Do you know what I mean?
Absolutely not.
Sit down, Ted.
Ted sat down, maintaining eye contact pridefully, settling in for what looked to be an angry monologue from Blaugrund, who was straitening his stupid, preppy bow tie.
I'm going to tell you this one time because to be honest, life is too short to read books like this. This tome is for the 15 pimply grad students at New Haven sitting at a round table fingering their blackheads and wondering about tenure.”

Forgive the protracted excerpt here, but I wanted to underline my incredulity when the host announced that the guest was David Duchovny, and the novel he was reading from was his latest, Bucky F*****g Dent. David Duchovny, Fox Mulder from The X-Files and star of the TV shows Californication and Aquarius. A guy I kind of liked as an actor but never thought twice as being anything more than that. And of course he is, with literary bona fides galore--a B.A. in English Literature from Princeton, a M.A. in English Literature from Yale, where he studies under the legendary literary critic Harold Bloom.

So I picked up Duchovny's book (the title refers, of course, to the freak home run hit by the Yankee shortstop in the infamous 1978 playoff game between the cursed Red Sox and New York) and discovered that the TV actor can really write. The book is about fathers and sons, baseball, families, writers, and it's a piece of work. Funny, sharp, incisive. You can't throw Duchovny's name in with Franzen and Eggers just yet, but it's an achievement nonetheless, one of the better books I've read in the past few years.

It goes to show that you really can't pigeon-hole people without engaging in serious folly. No matter how much it compromises your sense of order, the truth about people is that they refuse to become two-dimensional figures; there's always surprises and hidden depths in even the celebrities that you thought you had pegged accurately as "merely" being celebrities. Turns out Duchovny never really wanted to be an actor, he had his mind set on being a writer or an academic; Professor Duchovny. Acting was just something he fell into. And I'm glad he did, for I'm a total sucker for The X-Files, but I'm also glad to discover his other avocation. Bucky F*****g Dent might not quite be the Great American Novel of this century, but it's infinitely more literary than the vanity works by TV lightweights like Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon. And it's light years ahead of the Collected Works of that other esteemed TV sci/fi actor, William Shatner. It's pleasantly surprising to discover that an actor who's famous for being in a mystery is something of a mystery himself.

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