Phil Fitch has reached a crossroads in his post-'Nam existence: he can play out a string of low-wage, brain-numbing jobs, or take a crack at two hundred large and retire in comfort. The only hitch is, he's not gambling on slots in Vegas. He's hijacking a plane. In the unlikely event he isn't killed by cops or a faulty parachute, he'll be on the lam forever. After being laid off from his janitorial gig and losing his wife, that doesn't seem like such a bad option.
Roscoe Arbuckle is tired of being called "Fatty." He's exhausted from riding the celebrity roller coaster from obscurity to renown and back again (with some breathtaking peaks and valleys in between). He wiles away the days hooked on morphine carefully administered by his valet, the only remnant of his fame. Like a trained seal, he performs his final trick: telling his life story in doses as carefully measured as the drug.
Phil and Roscoe are people you've heard of, but don't know. The former is infamous plane hijacker D.B. Cooper's alternate identity in Elwood Reid's tautly strung novel, D.
B.. The latter is best known as "Fatty" Arbuckle, film comedy megastar of the 1920s, rendered vividly in Jerry Stahl's highly entertaining I, Fatty (Bloomsbury, $23.95, 256 pages, ISBN 1582342474). Both Reid (author of If I Don't Six and Midnight Sun) and Stahl (whose Permanent Midnight became a Ben Stiller movie) prove themselves capable practitioners of what might be called fauxography, the part-biography, part-fiction trend that has grown out of the '70s "new journalism" movement. Authors have long been putting words in their characters' mouths, but imagining the life of a real person has its pitfalls. Though weaving fact and fiction can often make for a truer, more revealing portrait of a person than bare fact alone, other people's memories are just waiting out there to indict and contradict one's work. (Just ask Pulitzer prize-winning biographer Edwin Morris, author of Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan.) Fortunately for Reid and Stahl, the subjects of their novels are either little known or little remembered. Each author has breathed the second and third dimensions into these real-life figures, allowing them to emerge from the page into our consciousness.
Fitch/Cooper, a shadowy figure at best, only gained fame as "D.
B." Cooper due to a reporter's error. The known facts are that a man calling himself Dan Cooper hijacked a Northwest Orient Boeing 727 on Thanksgiving eve in 1971, parachuting out with his $200,000 ransom over Washington state. Reid speculates that Mexico would be the logical place for a man with a large cache of purloined cash and a "wanted" poster. As Cooper immerses himself into the easy life south of the border, his former FBI nemesis attempts a more conventional retirement. When circumstances dictate Cooper's return, Reid expertly renders their pas de deux, ratcheting up the tension to a surprising conclusion.
Roscoe Arbuckle, on the other hand, was, in his day, about as high-profile as they come. Meticulously researched by Stahl, I, Fatty traces Arbuckle's life from unwanted child to silent film superstar to unwitting fall guy for a movie industry demonized by the era's moralists. Told in the first person, it's the kind of celebrity "autobiography" one could only dream of in this era of gatekeeper publicists and spin control. Stahl unravels the film legend's life with a clear-eyed and unsentimental perspective. In one passage, he's asked by a nurse if he is Roscoe Arbuckle. "Well," he replies, "I'd hate to look like this and not be Roscoe Arbuckle." How could you not be charmed by that? Arbuckle's charisma overshadows the fact that he looks like a sideshow freak, is physically and psychically dysfunctional, and spends the last third of the book enduring the effects of two murder trials. He is eventually found innocent of the charges, but this particular phoenix arose from the ashes with both wings charred. Spinning the last of his tale, he wistfully accepts his fate: "I ask you again, what was anything a fat man accomplished? A pile of leaves waiting for a wind."Cooper may still be at large, or he may be among his own pile of leaves somewhere in a Washington forest. It's uncertain whether either he or Arbuckle lived out their days as their fauxographers would have it. But both of these highly engaging novels allow the reader to suspend disbelief and make one wish it were so.