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Book review: <i>American Hoax</i> by Charles Firth

the cover of the book

If this was lunch, it would be a Wendy's hot dog with everything.


Charles Firth dressed as Uncle Sam, giving us with the world's biggest "Gotcha!". An equivalent cover could have read: "Americans Please Do Not Buy This Book".


Firth, ex of the Chaser, outlines his intentions at the beginning of the book. He's staying in America, and he wants to get at the heart of the place and write about it. But how best to do it? He decides to create five independent American personalities, and see to what degree he can carry them off in American society. There's an self-righteous lefty, a media-savvy conservative, a neocon Limbaugh wannabe, a doughy, gormless everyman (whose behaviour Firth bases on median U.S. statistics) and a feminist Islamic lady poet.

The good

Although the last one doesn't get far (probably not a bad thing) the basic idea has legs - I experienced a few tingles early on from the anticipation of what a guy like Firth (who reported from America in some very funny segments on The Chaser's TV show) could do with a handful of satirical alter egos. Like his Chaser compatriots, he's not scared to push the concept, either - he never quite makes it to Iraq, but (as the conservative think-tanker) he travels to Iran and interviews a disarmingly straight-up spook.

Firth gets articles published under several of his guises - my favourite goes into a Republican essay collection and simply comprises a left-wing screed pinched from an opposing site in which Firth has swapped all the words "Democrat" for "Republican" and changed "Hillary Clinton" to "John McCain," etc. Firth blogs continually under his aliases, creates Wikipedia entries for all of them, exchanges correspondence and phone calls with some impressively well-placed politicos on their behalf, and meets many people in person, trying not to reveal his Australian accent. It's undeniably interesting, occasionally exciting and a unique approach to the material, even post-Borat.

Despite his devious designs, Firth seems like a nice chap, which is good, because I'm not sure I was in the mood for the tone of constant sneering which I expected (and which the cover seems to promise). He genuinely aims for a balanced political viewpoint, and pushes his left-wing characters to be as irritating and deluded as those on the right. I wouldn't go so far as to claim that this book was pushing a particular message, but the strongest one I took away was that aligning yourself unthinkingly to a political "wing" makes no more (and sometimes less) sense than aligning yourself to a religious sect. I knew this in theory, of course, but Firth makes a thoroughly convincing case, partly because the turbulence where his fictional selves meet the real world tends to resonate with the turbulence where the ideologies and assumptions of those whose views they share do likewise.

The bad

It's a bitch of a complaint to make, especially toward work with such potential, but I think Firth bites off more than he can chew. The problem, sad to say, lies with the author himself. An idea like this demands not just intelligence and balls of steel (all three of which Firth exhibits throughout the book) but also real skill at mimicry, manipulation and improv, particularly mano e mano where there's no room to hesitate, fluster, or worry about your accent. Doing this idea justice in four dimensions would take a person half Sacha Baron Cohen, half Stephen Colbert, and minus the fame of either. Even if you were this person, and you completely pulled it off, the results would be so awesome they'd deserve far better exposure than a book with a dodgy photo on the cover that few outside Australia will read.

American Hoax could yet have come together if Firth was a great satirical commentator; somebody like P.J. O'Rourke or Joe Bennett could have hewn this material into a satisfying chunk. Again, Firth isn't bad; in fact he's quite good - an amiable, intelligent voice with flashes of both wit and insightful flair - but he's also inexperienced as a writer, and this is particularly evident where the unusual form of the book meets the reader's expectations of pacing and proportion. Firth is not quite sure, we sense, how much space to devote to which characters, how much time to allow their specific exploits, and, between such episodes, how much time to spend recording his own ex-character activities and thoughts about the project in toto. These aspects, more evidently, perhaps, to the reader than the author (another symptom of inexperience), define our sense of the book as a success or failure; the meandering confidence levels of Firth the impressionist could have been propped up by a strong hand from Firth the writer or vice versa, but wavering on both paths inescapably conveys to the audience that the book is not working. Which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I would very much like to see what Firth does next. If he can polish his chops while maintaining his originality, it's got to be worth investigating. As is this, in fact - just don't go in expecting biting satire, political density or Borat.

What I learnt

Being a popular blogger takes quite a lot of time. If half your writing is cribbed from other sites, it takes just as long.

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

In short

Title: American Hoax
Author: Charles Firth
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
ISBN: 1405037628
Year published: 2007
Genre(s): Non-fiction, humour, Political
Review Type: