Stranger Than Nonfiction
by Nick Bergus
The line between fiction and nonfiction seems clear. In the kingdom of books, it’s the most basic distinction, akin to the one between plants and animals, drawn by nearly every library and bookstore I know. To me the difference is simple: Did the author make up anything? Any work answering “yes” goes directly to fiction, does not pass go, and (except in the case of writers like James Frey who purposely misrepresent their work) does not collect an advance of $200,000.
Books like Scott Cawelti’s Brother’s Blood: A Heartland Cain and Abel, however, make drawing the line between fiction and nonfiction tricky. Cawelti’s book is the story of one brother’s cold-blooded murder of another in his home near Cedar Falls more than three decades ago. The author reconstructs the events from premeditation to prosecution to imprisonment. The convicted murderer, Jerry Mark — who drove a motorcycle from California to Iowa to kill his younger brother, his brother’s wife, and the couple’s two young children — still insists on his innocence.
The book graphically depicts the murders and comes nowhere near the definition of light-hearted. (When my editor heard my proposal for the topic of this issue’s column, she replied via email — so I can only assume she was being sarcastic — “Perfect for the holidays!”) But that’s not at issue. My conclusion is not that Cawelti’s story isn’t compelling or that he didn’t do his research. Affirmative on both counts.
Cawelti, by his own admission in a note preceding 60 pages of police, trial, and interview transcripts, employs poetic license by introducing private thoughts, detailed conversations, and even dreams to “create a readable and engaging narrative.”
By my definition, the book is fiction.
This literary line in the sand is important to me because expectations matter. I want to know if the universe of the book I’m reading is my own or another, even one ever so slightly separate. And while I appreciate the author’s giving me his sources to pick through and make my own decision as to the accuracy of the story, I want to take the truth of nonfiction for granted when I’m wrapped up in a story. And I want nonfiction to remain synonymous with truth.
If I toss this onto the nonfiction pile because ofthe slight use of poetic license, then I surely have to do the same withTruman Capote’s In Cold Blood — and Brother’s Blood follows in the footsteps of that classic recounting of another Midwestern murder. That I am hesitant to do.
Maybethe problem is solely mine. Maybe I just don’t like having to be skeptical while I read. Maybe I just don’t like wondering if I’m being duped. Maybe I just want the line between fiction and nonfiction to be less permeable than it can or should be.
Maybe I need to rework my definition. Instead of “Did the author make up anything?” perhaps the more appropriate question is “Did the author make up anything implausible?” Still a simple, fairly easy-to-answer question.
Reading Brother’s Blood in the light of that revised criteria, I am happy to report that Cawelti’s book is still compelling. And I have no doubt of its truth.