It's now apparent that John Smelcer is a literary fraud. Smelcer appears to have fabricated a Native heritage and blurbs from any number of now-deceased big-name authors. And now this 2014 story by Smelcer, a supposedly non-fiction essay about a road trip with John Updike to meet J.D. Salinger, is making the rounds online.
Knowing what we know now, the story seems obviously ridiculous. The idea of Smelcer and Updike singing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" on their way to meet Salinger is pretty funny. But the idea of Updike and Smelcer singing "Teen Angel" in a New Hampshire diner to the applause of total strangers is just, well, unspeakably dumb.
I love how Smelcer fact-checks himself over the most inoccuous part of the story — a CD collecting radio hits from decades ago. At first, Smelcer says it's supposed to be hits from the 1960s, but then he amends his own story with a parenthetical adjustment: "I’ve been reminded recently that some of these songs were first popular in the ’50s but gained chart-topping success as remakes in the early ’60s." Why bother to tell us this? Why not just find a way to work that information into the text?
And then Smelcer adds at the end of the paragraph: "While writing this essay, I looked hard for that CD in my collection, but I couldn’t find it." A cliche about protesting too much comes to mind. Perhaps Smelcer intended the reader to perceive the CD as a magical totem, one which appeared when it was most needed and then disapparated after its purpose was met. But more likely he was just shoveling some bullshit and didn't know when to stop.
Another thing that stands out about the story is how poorly written it is. My God, this line: "Needless to say, I was elated at the prospect of meeting J. D. Salinger." If it's needless to say, don't say it. You bonehead. And then after Updike and Smelcer's much-lauded "Teen Angel" performance, Salinger mentions some historical context about the song. Smelcer writes:
I used to wonder why J. D. Salinger would know that bit of trivia. Not long after, it hit me: Of course he knew that bit of trivia. Salinger was the creator of that quintessentially brash teenage underachiever, Holden Caulfield.
I don't know what the fuck Smelcer is trying to say here. Is he saying that because Salinger wrote a teenage icon, he is also a Keeper of All Teenage-Related Knowledge? Why repeat the bland phrase "know/knew that bit of trivia?" Also the timeline in this paragraph is confusing. Smelcer used to wonder why Salinger knew the trivia, but not long after the meeting with Salinger he realized why Salinger knew the trivia? When did he wonder and when did he know? Did nobody edit this shit?
This is the first piece of Smelcer's writing I've ever read from start to finish. I was not prepared for the wretchedness of the prose. And I was alarmed to see how blatantly Smelcer rips off the voice of the most famous Native American writer alive — Seattle's own Sherman Alexie.
There are two inflection points in the piece when Smelcer attempts to achieve maximum Alexie-ness. The first is in this passage:
I have a habit of singing aloud in the car. Some people say I have a good voice. My uncle Herbert would have disagreed. He always hated that I’d sing whenever we’d go anywhere together, moose or caribou hunting or salmon fishing at the headwaters of the Klutina River.
But then an unexpected miracle happened.
John started singing with me.
Anyone who has read a lot of Alexie's writing can immediately spot the faux-lexie-ness of this passage: Alexie often uses those short single-sentence paragraphs as emotional breaking points. They rhythmically amp up the piece. In musical terms, they're a minimalist spray of bass licks, or a rumbling pulse of drums. You can find these kinds of moments throughout Alexie's new memoir You Don't Have to Say You Love Me.
But in Smelcer's phrasing, these breaks are pure melodrama. He's using them wrong. Alexie would have savored the moment and urged the reader to find their own catharsis in his words. Smelcer just punches the reader between the eyes with his own supposed sense of wonder. (Also, Alexie never would have published a hackneyed phrase like "unexpected miracle." How many fucking miracles are expected, anyway?)
And then, in a heartbreakingly imbecilic move, Smelcer ends the piece with another short standalone paragraph intended to recall the moment in the car when Updike and Smelcer sang together:
This is just painful. The Tokens should sue him for musical malpractice. Alexie uses music references and lyrics in his poetry all the time, but only as accents — as reinforcements for emotional work that he's already done in the writing. Smelcer's phony cinematic bullshit is the literary equivalent of a Hallmark card. He expects the song to carry the emotional heft of the piece, most likely because the piece has no authentic emotional heft of its own.
It would make sense that Smelcer, in a quest to fabricate his own Native authenticity, would read a bestselling Native American author. But this piece indicates that those readings of Alexie might have been superficial misreadings. Smelcer seems to ape Alexie's style but not his substance.
This is more than just an off-key rendition of literary karaoke: this is Smelcer breaking into Alexie's house and trying on all his clothes. This is a little boy gallumphing around in shoes ten times his size. This is a clown in oversized pants who believes everyone is taking him seriously.