I've read four novels recently that announce upfront that they're "fictionalized biographies." Such voluntary self-disclosure is meant to alert everyone to the dangers within, like "may cause death" or "you could lose money." But, of course, anybody who lights up a Lucky Strike or plunks down savings in the Internet Vision Fund imagines those warnings don't really apply to him.
That kind of exceptionalism is irresistible when reading one of these hybrid biographical novels. "Yes, yes, I know it's a work of fiction," I mutter, "but most of this is probably true."
"The Perfect American" is a perfect example of this unsettling genre. Everything about it is a house of mirrors: The author, Peter Jungk, is an American-born novelist who lives in Paris and writes in German. His novella has been translated by Michael Hofmann, who was born in Germany, raised in England, and now teaches in Michigan. The story purports to be a confession, written in prison, by Wilhelm Dantine, a fictional Austrian-born cartoonist who worked for several years with Walt Disney, the real filmmaker who sought to create the future in California with fantasies of his past in the Midwest. Every detail in the book is true, except for those which are made up. You may lose money. Could cause death.
The story opens in Marceline, Mo., in 1966, during the final months of Disney's life. The filmmaker has returned to his boyhood hometown to dedicate a new park. In the audience of well-wishers lurks Dantine, who tells us this was the sixth time he'd planned to confront Mr. Disney. In fact, since he was summarily dismissed from the Burbank Studios in 1954, Dantine has abandoned his career and family to study his great idol and enemy, the father of Mickey Mouse.
Sometimes in this fact-packed but endlessly questionable biography, Dantine explains how he acquired bits of personal information by befriending Disney's friends, ingratiating himself to his mistress, collecting thousands of newspaper clippings, and sneaking into parties and meetings. But at other times, he merely speaks with a creepy kind of omniscience, reciting to us, for instance, the egotistical little prayer that Disney repeats each morning in bed: "I am a leader, a pioneer, I am one of the great men of our time. More people in the world know my name than that of Jesus Christ.... I have created a universe. My fame will outlast the centuries."
Ultimately, this is a haunting story not so much about the wonderful world of Disney as about the corrosive effects of personal obsession, the porous membrane between adulation and hatred.
The day that Disney hired him was the happiest day of Dantine's life, but it infected him with a need for the man's praise. While Dantine produced thousands of drawings for "Sleeping Beauty," Disney never delivered a kind or encouraging word. What's worse, Dantine saw firsthand how little Disney actually did - no writing, no drawing, no filming, just vague directives to his minions, dismissive criticism, and an absolute insistence that all credit for everything flow exclusively to him. He couldn't even write out his own famous signature.
Dantine has spent his life trying to prove that the king of Disneyland is an emperor with no clothes. But the record he collects is maddeningly ambiguous, no more conclusive than Dantine's hatred, which is so mingled with awe and love.
The portrait that emerges is not flattering to either man. Disney comes across as maniacally egotistical, unapologetically racist, and embarrassingly immature. But again and again, the artists who toiled away in complete anonymity for decades to create all that we think of as Disney's work tell Dantine that they adored their boss, that his energy and inspiration generated everything they did.
At the center of the story is the day Dantine finally climbs over Disney's fence and confronts him in his own backyard. "You are personally responsible for the fact that nothing in my life has turned out well," Dantine announces while Disney tinkers on his giant train engine. Dantine has fantasized about this encounter for years, choreographed it perfectly to devastate his nemesis, but it's a moment of madness and self-mutilation rather than assault - a comic and grotesque demonstration of obsession.
In the end, Dantine's entire prison testimony fails to expose or ridicule the man as he'd intended because Jungk captures something tragic and moving about old Walt. Whether he's planning to have himself frozen in nitrogen or trying to talk sense into his malfunctioning Abraham Lincoln robot, this Disney is a strangely sympathetic character.
Disneyland, Disney World, EPCOT, and, more recently, the faux town, Celebration, all express their creator's desire to meld an idealized past with a technological future. For millions of people throughout the world, that remains an irresistible dream.
Even without its heavy-handed title, the story obviously means to imply that no one better expressed that essentially American desire to be loved and to dominate. And it makes a strong case. But with poor Dantine, who remains so madly faithful to his "beloved antagonist," the author has captured something essentially European, too. Dantine's mingled disdain and admiration for a man who seems more energy than intellect is a wry emblem of the Continent's complex envy toward the United States and all its galling success.
Proceed with caution into Jungkland. There are some wonderful rides here, and it's often impossible to distinguish the factual from the fantastic, but the insights are true - and troubling.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments about the book section to Ron Charles.