Saturday, May 16, 2020
On my ramshackle list of once and present beloved books lies The Tracker, by Tom Brown Jr. It sits uneasily in my Non Fiction section in between Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan and Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf and People of the Deer. This sub genre of Non Fiction might best be described as great non fiction books properly read as non fiction, but anywhere from 10 percent to 100 percent made up.
That's some tricky stuff!
On the high end of this, one has The Teachings of Don Juan, a book it would be hard at this point not to understand as basically a complete fabrication. As a young man (or even before that), reading this book (and its sequels) was an involving, powerful, and sometimes terrifying experience that exerted a strong influence on me. In some ways it is a coming of age, rite of passage story as told through Shamanism, personal teaching, and the stripping away of our perceived reality to reveal the deeper, harder, truer mystical reality lying beneath. As the fiction it more accurately is, I suspect some share of its power would be much diluted for the reader, and writing about the books now I feel little interest in reading them again to see what I would feel.
On the low end of this strange mini genre we have Farley Mowat. It would be extremely hard to say what percentage of his early masterpieces were fudged. Though clearly grounded in his striking and true travels, relationships, and events, he does seem to have used a free hand in augmenting his given experiences to make his narrative as vivid and "true" as possible. Whether they are 10 percent or 50 percent fictional is well beyond me to say. I am inclined to keep them solidly in non fiction, which is a dodgy category to begin with anyway. But I do recognize that my estimation is perhaps to be taken with a grain of salt as I consider these books of his to be among the greatest books ever written, and so am inclined to forgive them almost anything.
Somewhere between these books lies The Tracker. Yet another coming of age story with Native Americans as teachers and wisdom givers, but written by (mostly) white people, The Tracker is the account of the author's training, with an older Native American man, in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, in extreme wilderness survival, respect for the natural world, and most specifically in animal tracking. However true this book is, many things have stuck with me from it (and too from a couple of its sequels), one of which I plan on talking about tomorrow. Like my first two examples I am ill-equipped to judge how much of this account is fictionalized. I can only feel confident that some is and some isn't, and feel comfortable placing that amount as somewhere between the respective amounts of Don Juan and Never Cry Wolf.
These books occupy a curious category in which the authors' later lives reflect on the depth of the quality of their earlier works that brought them to notoriety and acclaim. I'm not sure Caravaggio's paintings aren't just as good to me despite all his dabbling in... murder, but even if they weren't his being a murderer doesn't tell on his earlier work which is at least somewhat more independent of its creator. For allegedly non fictional accounts, the context is changed by the consistency, or lack thereof in the author's life. Their lives tell on the earlier work in a more direct way and are capable of exposing it. The authors Tom Brown Jr. and Carlos Castaneda both seemed to get, in their own ways, a little culty and dodgy as they got older and made use of the rewards of their fame. Farley Mowat seemed to remain, well, Farley Mowat. How he spoke, wrote, believed, worked, and lived feels consistent with his own portrayal of himself in his youth and with his point of view then.
I will still take things from my experiences reading the Don Juan books and The Tracker. Like Farley Mowat's books they are even a small part of what formed me. But only the Farley Mowat books remain true to me. Only Farley Mowat's books feel as true as events of my own life. And only Farley Mowat's books remain, after all these years, as true as the best fiction.