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Fact Over Fiction

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Jake Silverstein is painfully successful. The 35-year-old California native is editor of Texas Monthly and a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine. He won a PEN-USA Journalism Award in 2007 and was a 2002 Fulbright scholar. He’s handsome. Like, baby-faced, twinkle-eyed, your-grandmother-has-a-crush-on-him handsome. I was sad that his author’s photo didn’t feature him cradling a Labrador.

His first book, Nothing Happened and Then It Did: A Chronicle in Fact and Fiction, seems designed to conceal Silverstein’s epic wins. In Nothing Happened, the protagonist—Jake Silverstein—is a young, hapless, ruminating ex-poet and wannabe journalist wandering the deserts of Far West Texas and Mexico, chasing stories that never pan out and getting scooped by the New Yorker. He sleeps in flophouses, loses months chasing red herrings, runs out of money, gets yelled at, takes odd jobs as a driver, dishwasher and groundskeeper. He wonders, as his aging Toyota begins to clank, “If the car died, and I hiked up into the hills to live on ketchup packets and prairie dogs, would anyone even know I was missing?”

Nothing Happened is filed under fiction, and Silverstein is not the first author to use his own name and life to write a sort-of fictional memoir. He is the first to explicitly divvy these up, to subdivide his chapters into “Fiction” and “Fact” and swear by the veracity of the latter and the originality of the former. Nothing Happened has four chapters of each, and they alternate while weaving together a narrative of spunky Jake’s journalistic misadventures. As a story, it works. Silverstein gives his well-spun yarns, false and true, additional weight with fascinating research—a (fictional) quest for pirate booty gets a juicy history of Jean Lafitte; the (factual) opening of a McDonald’s in Zacatecas is contextualized within Mexico’s historical national identity. Silverstein (the character) is charmingly earnest, with endearing self-doubt that’s not quite neurotic and a green journalist’s courage sans bravado. Silverstein (the author) is a master of the telling detail, the quick character sketch, and the deadpan comedy of real life.

What sets Silverstein most apart is his tenderness. Silverstein has an empathy and respect for his subjects that’s so often missing from the chronicles of professional observers. His gift is in the sensitivity of his observations; he never forgets that the people he writes about are people. The way he writes about construction workers and children suggests that the humble Silverstein of Nothing Happened is true to how the author regards himself and his world, however prestigious his real-life resume.

Nothing Happened is conceptually clever. Though marketed as an answer to fabulists shilling memoirs and journalism, Silverstein’s hybrid also gives him the advantages of three genres at once. His nonfiction chapters showcase his ample skill as a magazine journalist, his fiction gives him a foothold in that artful genre, and the overall effect is of reading a memoir—the mythologized author documenting his own creation. By dividing his chapters into fact and fiction, Silverstein comments on the concept of genre and divisions thereof. He invites readers to compare fiction and nonfiction, and perhaps forget, moment to moment, which they are reading. He’s not totally successful. Despite being a good read, Silverstein’s fiction can’t compete with his truth. They don’t read interchangeably. His fact chapters are restricted in plot by the events of plodding life, but they’re told so richly and so fully mined for significance that they’re more interesting than the more plot-heavy fiction parts.

Silverstein’s fictional characters are too often caricatures: The German photographer from the New Yorker is typically militant and humorless, and the adolescent son of a powerful Mexican-American businessman has a “weak handshake and stiff hair,” and is sullen and whiney. Silverstein’s imagined scenes also lack the precise language that characterizes his journalism. At one point, he describes “piles of rotting fruit” beneath a tree. As the owner of a relentlessly productive orange tree, I can attest that falling fruit bounces and litters the ground, but it never collects into a pile. It’s a little thing, but it robs Silverstein’s fiction of the delicious ring of truth present in his fact chapters.

His observing eye, however, is precise. In chapter three (“Fact”) Silverstein attends a convention in Reno, Nevada, of the Famous Poets Society, a cheesy scam in which poets compete for cash prizes. His descriptions of the award ceremony are priceless.

Some of the winners let out huge sighs of relief and gazed graciously to heaven. Some were catapulted into frenzies of hugging and crying and clutching of cheeks. One girl, whose winning poem was entitled “My Elusive Heart,” immediately began to fan herself, as if she were worried she might overheat. She fanned herself all the way up to the stage and then stood speechlessly at the podium for a quarter of a minute. Finally she shrieked, “World peace!” and burst into tears.

As Homer Simpson says, it’s funny because it’s true. That’s the principle that guides the stronger half of Nothing Happened and Then It Did.

Emily DePrang is a contributing writer for The Texas Observer. She’s at work on her first book, Theory: A Love Story.

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.