Drowning in Truth: Lessons from Dispatches from the Drownings by B.J. Hollars


Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction by B.J. Hollars is a deep, poignant look into the nature of nonfiction, specifically in how it relates to truth and fiction. Dispatches starts with a very necessary Author’s Note, in which Hollars explains his project:

Sticking with my ‘75/25 theory’ on the validity of facts, only seventy-five percent of the following hundred drowning dispatches are based on true accounts. The other twenty-five are completely fabricated. I have made no effort to differentiate. In fact, in an attempt to thwart the sleuthing reader, I have gone so far as to manufacture false entries in my bibliography. (Hollars, xiv)

Thus Hollars begins an exploration of where truth is found in journalism, in creative nonfiction, and in fiction and where the lines are between these three genres. Though Hollars admits that this way of going about things will be maddening for some readers, he is also clear and upfront about his truthfulness (or lack thereof). It could be argued that this ends up being more honest than most journalism, which does not discuss the writer’s own motives, how she comes to choose the facts she chooses, or what she chooses to stretch or leave out.

Dispatches is indeed a fascinating foray into the exploration of truth in writing, but it is also much more than that. I found myself unable to put the book down. This, despite the fact that Hollars himself admits that there is very little suspense in the book. Most of the stories end the same way, with a drowning. However, Hollars uses many techniques to keep the reader going. Some of these are very straightforward. The shortness of the articles, between one hundred and five hundred words pushes the reader on. The use of white space in the book keeps the articles from running together and also allows the reader that sense of moving quickly through the pages. It is, quite literally, a page-turner. The writing is also captivating, making puns or drawing conclusions so that the reader must ask: Is this Hollars or is he “paraphrasing” what was already there? So many of the articles end with eyebrow-raising lines, like the one about the man thought to have had a heart attack: “On his last swim, however, his heart was no longer in it” (Hollars, 162) or the story of the drowning of the “inmate at the feeble-minded home” which ends with “It appears as if they boy who sought independence on Independence Day found freedom at last in the river” (Hollars, 136).

Some of the things that keep the reader going, however, go deeper into the choices that Hollars made. For one, there is a great variety in the types of stories that Hollars uses. While most of the stories end in death by drowning, they don’t all. The stories vary from the rescue of a pig, to lovers’ quarrels, to mothers drowning children, to men in logging accidents. The sheer range of possibilities of ways to drown is mind-boggling. Additionally, Hollars gives us also a range of details. The articles do not simply state the name and date, etc. Some give the process of grief of survivors, some give the background of the deceased, some give insight into how mental illness was portrayed at the time, some give details about clothing, customs, or celebrations of the time period. The effect is that the reader is not reading the same story over and over again, but instead is looking through one hundred peepholes which give tiny glimpses into the lives of the people and the past. This effect is heightened by the use of photographs from that time period and place.

This array of information given and information withheld also leaves the reader with questions that keep her going through the book. What is mother’s disease? Did they ever find the body? Was that really an accident? What happened to the money? Hollars plays to these questions by very rarely giving the answers. For about four of the articles, he also gives follow-up articles that explain the story more fully. This keeps the reader going in hopes that more might be explained. It is very rare that it ever is.

Perhaps the most powerful thing that keeps the reader going is the search for truth. Knowing that twenty-five percent of the articles are not factual makes the book into a game, as if the more the reader reads, the more insight will be gained, and therefore perhaps the reader will be able to tell the “fraudulent” articles from the real ones. The reader feels as if perhaps the next article will hold clues about how to tell which stories are real, about how to read this book. True to his philosophy, Hollars never reveals which stories we may take as truth and which he fabricated. Instead of leaving the reader maddened, this has the effect of leaving the reader haunted: haunted by the drownings which may or may not have taken place, haunted that we may never know what happened, haunted by idea that truth may not be as easy to grasp as we once thought. Indeed, Hollars writes that he leaves this project with the same ghosts: “Despite all my research, I could no longer precisely recall which stories were factual and which I’d fabricated… I’ve studied the facts, I’ve fabricated the fictions, but I no longer know which me to believe” (Hollars, 184).

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

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