Pants afire

By JAMES PARKER  |  March 13, 2008

Then there’s Bill Shields. I used to read Bill Shields. I’m on record somewhere describing his poetry as “brutal, damaging.” Or maybe it’s “relentless, pulverizing.” Henry Rollins’s company 2.13.61. published several books by this former Navy SEAL and veteran of three tours in ’Nam, in which his hellish flashbacks and failed attempts at social re-entry are explored in language of uncommon brutality, damage, relentlessness, and pulverization. “I was a young man,” he wrote in The Southeast Asian Book of the Dead, “18 years old, before I saw my first dead body. Might as well been a carp, for all I felt, a carp w/one eye out and mutilated fins. A small girl in a nameless Vietnamese town, all of six homes and six fireplaces . . . everything coated in mud and war. A thin pig was chewing on her leg, grunting as it tore into her. The guy next to me had been in Nam for five months. He killed the pig; we all ate it later & it tasted fine.” Ouch! Surely these are the darkest reaches of the human soul. One small problem, though: Bill Shields (as a superior piece of reporting by Seth Gotro, published in the ’zine Verbicide in 2004, established beyond doubt) was never a SEAL, and he was never in Vietnam.

Nothing pisses off an ex-SEAL more than a SEAL impersonator: Shields’s name can now be found in the “Hall of Shame” on the Web site of the authentication service VeriSEAL, alongside those of a shady Floridian scuba instructor and a man who “appeared to be smuggling watermelons.”

The flaming trousers of humiliation
Everybody gets busted in the next world, and most of us, sooner or later, get busted in this one. It is a paradox of Fabrication Nation that its chief producers, even as they spew cynical fountains of BS, exhibit a strange innocence as to the possibility of ever getting called on it. What did Margaret Seltzer think was going to happen after the Times took her picture?

Did Mitt Romney, as his claims mounted in outrageousness (no lobbyists in my campaign! Dad marched shoulder-to-shoulder with MLK!), imagine that no one would bother to check them out? Roger Clemens, blustering denials, appears to have perjured himself beyond repair. And just picture one of those naughty Boston firefighters in the bathroom, thumbing multiple-choice answers into his cell phone, eyes a-glint and tongue-tip protruding as the urinals hiss behind him.

The other salient paradox is the one expressed by British humorist GK Chesterton: “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.” In a spiritual vacuum, that is, our bullshit detectors are traumatized. They go haywire. “So give me something to believe!” blubbers the Bravery’s lead-singer dude. “Cause I am living just to breathe/And I need something more/To keep on breathing for . . .” We feel unreal, half-baked, so we become obsessed with authenticity. If James Thurber wrote The Secret Life of Walter Mitty today, his overshoe-wearing nonhero wouldn’t be dreaming about sang-froid in an eight-engined Navy hydroplane, nor beautiful women falling into his arms: he’d be dreaming about victimhood, tribulation, overcoming, uniqueness. The aggrieved spirit rising, and so forth. Perpetually starved of the real deal, we are gobbling down these stories at such a rate that the available stock must be resupplied by fakers.

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