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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."

How is a man to reconcile this contrast: Pretend to be beamish Uncle Walt, all the while knowing that his nature is otherwise -- bleak, cold, driven, driving? How, indeed, does he live with the fact that he cannot -- never could -- draw the dear figures everyone associates with his name, could not even manage the stylized signature attached to every product of his empire that eventually became a vast corporation's logo?

These are huge lies. Living within them made Walt permanently mad -- angry mad and, eventually (Jungk suggests), crazy mad. The genius he possessed -- for entrepreneurship, not invention -- was never enough for him. He wanted not just the fame and wealth he attained. He wanted to immortally bestride the world. Which is, of course, why that greatest of urban legends, that Disney was cryogenically preserved, took such an unshakable hold on the public. It just seemed so right, so totally appropriate to him.

Jungk gives no credence to that myth. He wants to explore the irony of his title. Walt Disney, in his view, was "the perfect American" precisely because he lost himself in the fantasy that accreted around him, which is, of course, what all of us do, albeit on a much more modest scale. None of us is quite as good, quite as potent, as we think we are in our headier moments. But most of us do not have access to the machinery that feeds our grandiosity. By the same token, when it is nighttime, and the machine is shut down, we are not subject to the kind of rages and paranoia that afflict this fictional Disney.

In his voice, I kept hearing echoes of Richard Nixon's. They were both men of talent, listening to the lonesome train whistles that promised escape from backgrounds too emotionally impoverished to nourish and sustain their vaulting ambitions. They wanted to command history, to become legends. Instead, they have become the stuff of slightly puzzled psychobiography.

And of fictions such as Jungk's, which is only partially successful. His inventions, powerful and darkly amusing as they often are, sit uneasily atop his well-researched facts. His Disney raves more than the real Walt actually did. On the other hand, I'm not sure the author wants us to lose ourselves in his story. I think he wants us to find ourselves in it, to reflect on fame and its power to distort not just our perceptions of "great" men, but on the way celebrity damages those men when they become possessed by their own falsified, falsifying images. *

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