I Thought My Father Was God: and Other True Tales from NPR’s National Story Project
Paul Auster, editor
This book is the product of a remarkably good idea hatched by novelist Paul Auster and the folks at National Public Radio. The idea was to invite members of the NPR audience to submit stories—brief, true and close to the bone—to be read on the air: the National Story Project, as they rather grandly named it. They didn’t expect literature, exactly, but what Auster called a "museum of American reality."
The stories flooded in, astonishing Auster with both their quantity and, often enough, their quality. Since he could read only a half dozen a month on the air, he culled the 4,000-plus submissions in the project’s first year to come up with the 179 that appear in this book. A third of the submitted pieces, Auster reports, are about families. Too many of them, I can report, are about coincidences. (Does the Guinness Book happen to keep records that document coincidences?) My favorite: a couple meet when they’re forced to sit together at a crowded restaurant. She gives him her phone number. He proceeds to lose it. Later that year each travels to Europe, and once again they find themselves—you guessed it—seated together at the same table. They fall in love. Sometimes, as a friend used to say, things are so corny they’re good.
The quality of the writing—though not all of it—is surprisingly high. Rick Beyer introduces his grandmother by way of her perfume—"the ninety-proof, render-the-victim-unconscious, moose-killing variety." She got him to eat his peas, whenever the noxious legume appeared on his plate, by paying him $5. This so wounded his mother that she uttered words that instilled guilt and have haunted him ever since: "You ate them for money, you can eat them for love." Then there is Dede Ryan’s inspired meditation on the difference between martinis and beer: "Martinis are subtle, introspective, reflective...beer is verbose and unedited. Beer is showy and full of jokes. Lawyers, salesmen, sports enthusiasts."
Many of these stories are forgettable, a few actively annoying, but some are the kind that stay with you and pop into your mind later, triggered by a scene or a thought. That achievement alone is enough to justify the price of admission.