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FILM ON PAPER

A life reanimated

The Perfect American A Novel Peter Stephan Jungk Handsel Books: 192 pp., $18

June 13, 2004|Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel is a contributing writer to Book Review and a movie critic for Time. He is the author of many books, including "The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art, and Commerce of Walt Disney."

Walt Disney died in 1966. He was only 65 years old, but he was already -- not least in his own mind -- a myth. Early in "The Perfect American," Peter Stephan Jungk's historical novel (perhaps we should call it a historical fantasia) about him, Disney murmurs to himself, "I am a leader, a pioneer. I am one of the great men of our time.... More people know my name than that of Jesus Christ. Billions have seen at least one of my films. It's something that never existed before me: an art form, a concept, that managed to address and move and delight the whole of mankind. I have created a universe. My fame will outlast the centuries."

Or possibly not. Jungk has created a dark doppelganger for Walt, an animator he fired who becomes his stalker, and, as the narrator of this version of Disney's life, our surrogate. His name is Wilhelm Dantine, and he is far from being a perfect American: He was born in Austria and exemplifies a peculiarly European attitude about American popular culture -- he is more intense about it, more smitten by it, more destabilized by it than most of us born, raised and daily accustomed to its genial trashiness. A fictional mistress Jungk has invented for his tale reflects on Dantine's type: "My guess is that every reasonably successful man has an archenemy, someone who makes it his business to persecute him. Usually he won't even know. Someone who reveres you and despises you at the same time. Who dogs your every step with his envy. Who won't let you go. Not until you're six feet under."

It is the function of this figure, full of spite, envy and obsession, to call Disney's self-regard into question, to keep reminding him (and the reader) of the vulgarity, the intellectual and artistic reductionism that lay beneath his vast, although hard-won, success. There are other times when this process approaches the surreal. At one point, Jungk imagines Disney in soulful conversation with his audioanimatronic Abe Lincoln when the robot has gone on the fritz and requires counsel from his master. At another, Dantine invades Disney's backyard when Walt is puttering with his beloved scale-model railroad that circled it. His intention is not to physically harm the man. It is to say all the hateful things that have been festering in his mind since his firing. Their conversation is edgy but surprisingly civil until Walt starts crowing about how he came from nothing and made something of himself -- the modern world's common-consent Merlin. To which Dantine replies, "An averagely successful American CEO is what you made of yourself." It's at this point that Walt launches himself at his tormentor, with the intent, at the least, to maim.

This fictional Disney has a right to his anger and paranoia. For one thing, the wild incidents Jungk conjures up for him occur in the last months of his life, when he was mortally ill but still denying the cancer that carried him off. For another -- and this is, I think, the author's main point -- he had reached an age when the need for introspection came upon him. It was an activity for which he had no gift. He always wanted to look ahead, not backward. So he was never obliged to live within the myth of his own genius, created by his flacks, eagerly parroted by the ever-supine press. He had, indeed, struggled up from the lowliest margins of society, had, indeed, known the hardest of hard times, both emotionally and economically. But now, a few grouchy intellectuals aside, everything he touched seemed wonderful to the world. And everything he touched turned to gold -- nevermind that the fairy tales he retold on the screen had been robbed of their essential darkness and terror. Or that his nature films replaced the animal kingdom's Darwinian struggles for survival with the chipper cuddlesomeness that was the Magic Kingdom's hallmark. Or that his theme park rubbed the rawness out of human experience and drew mouse ears and smiley faces on the resultant blank spots.

He could live with all that. He had, indeed, wanted from the first to banish from his sight, his very consciousness, all the ugliness he had known in his abused and impoverished Midwestern childhood. He had, in the first flush of his studio's success in the 1930s, wanted to make it a paradise, full of happy artists, whistling while they worked. But the salaries were mean; the credit scant (except for Disney himself); the work, driven by the lash of his perfectionism, hard. They formed a union, struck his plant and turned Disney into a fierce right-winger. Jungk says, accurately I believe, that his wife insisted on twin beds because she could not, after this, bear the cries, whispers and thrashings of his troubled sleep.

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