A Dog in a Hat by Joe Parkin
We love cycling stories. We loathe memoirs. Joe Parkin's memoir A Dog In A Hat is sitting on our desk. What to do?
We've always seen going over to Europe on your own without a team the most romantic way to get involved in racing over there. It's an old-fashioned kind of daring -- going into uncharted waters without the safety of familiar faces and a familiar language. Nothing but a bike, a few items of clothing, and confidence in one's abilities. And trying to make your way in Belgium where the racing is fierce, the bike culture deep, and the conditions hard is the romantic of the romantic. None of this hanging out in soft safe havens like Boulder, Girona, or the south of France. We love riding in the cold, we enjoy the hard miles.
Given our perversities, it's a given that we're predisposed to a story about a guy who got involved in Euro racing by going to Flanders on his own before the internet and before English was commonly spoken over there, learning the language and coming up the hard way.
But we dislike memoirs. We've read extended magazine pieces in the form and have started book-length treatments, finished a few, have almost never liked them. When we've read memoirs by people we've had more than a passing familiarity with, the stories typically ring false, as if the writer had created a fictional version of himself. Memoirs are, according to our Random House Webster's, "a record of events based on the writer's personal observation." A memory. Memories are typically personal and intimate and often seem to share hard-won truths. It might be that the memory aspect is the problem. It seems to give license for fiction to creep into non-fiction. It's not just liars like James Frey, but others who choose to add fictional elements to their memory to heighten the story. Frey is the embodiment of our issues with memoirs. He wrote bad fiction. His fiction, rightfully so, went nowhere. Then, he turned it into a memoir; A Million Little Pieces. Suddenly, the same work was loved; it was a best-seller. It was read because it claimed to possess the currency of truth. We once heard a writing teacher tell a student to change characters in a non-fiction piece. The idea was by changing details on the character, the story would be stronger. We were bothered by this -- that a teacher would encourage lying in non-fiction is bad, but it has a further corrosive effect. It devalues the truth and undermines those who endeavor to tell the truth. Passing off fiction as non-fiction makes it so the stories that aren't embellished have a harder time matching up. And a ghost-written memoir? Please. Call it an authorized biography and write it as such.
In some respects, this makes memoirs seem similar to reality television. Reality television is typically cheaper to produce than both fiction television and true documentary television. It is often scripted, though sometimes producers take pains to hide the scripting. The producers often create the reality and the participants often seem to fictionalize themselves. And people seem to like reality television for the same reason they like memoirs. They like the fact that it seems like fiction, but is "real." They overlook bad writing, and weak story-telling, and they eat up that the fictional story arc, that every little piece fits so perfectly.
The subtitle of Parkin's memoir gave us pause, "An American Bike Racer's Story of Mud, Drugs, Blood, Betrayal, and Beauty in Belgium." Such an over-the-top description. We doubted it would deliver, but we knew enough about Parkin to be interested regardless. The guy had seemingly come from nowhere, yet he made it onto a top-level Belgian squad. When he returned to the US, he bounced around, turned to mountain bike racing, and disappeared again. There had to be a story.
This is that story; we didn't need the hard sell of the subtitle. We don't think you need it either. Parkin doesn't really give the story of the subtitle, though most of the things promised were present. Can't say there was much in the way of betrayal. A Dog in a Hat takes us from him planning to race in Belgium after high school to his return to the US after he couldn't get on another Euro team. The book is intimate. Parkin doesn't offer up any easy lessons. He is rarely the hero of his own stories. He is frustrated, makes mistakes, expresses fear, admits to contradictory feelings, to pettiness, to liking dopers. All of which is excellent. He's also funny without going for punchlines.
Parkin makes an insight about his experience racing that has value for what it says about memories in general. "One of the truly beautiful things about cycling, however, is the fact that there is no such thing as 20/20 hindsight because there are too many variables." We don't think that applies to just cycling.
There is a remove to Parkin's tale. It reads like very much as if Parkin spent most of his time alone. We have no way to know whether or not this is true. For all the alone time he seems to have had, he was really social for the remainder of his hours. He very much wants to be part of the Flemish racing scene and makes every effort to be included as an honorary Vlaamse hard man.
The life is hard. But Parkin makes clear that's what he wanted and that's what he enjoyed. There was beauty in the suffering for prizes that were insignificant, in getting dropped, in sharing a long drive with a teammate. While he doesn't tell us everything, and he doesn't overdose us on the quotidian, he does share plenty of backstage tales and gives us ample glimpses of the mundane aspects of the life he lead. We would have been happy to read more.
Without him saying so, we get a strong sense that he not only lived the dream, but became the person of his dreams when he was fantasizing about the Euro life while being a bike bum in the US. He adopted the pose of a Belgian tough guy. How deep it went is hard to say. At the core, it seems like he was still an outsider, even though he got himself pretty far inside.
Doping does come up. He didn't see it until his very first pro kermis. And then it seems to be come up at lots of races, and offers a surprising twist. Parkin meets Paul Kimmage at a race and has a bad time with him; the experience gives a bit more depth to the Rough Ride story Kimmage told.
In some ways, Parkin does fall in to some memoir stereotypes. His writing is uneven and he falls back on some phrases a bit too often. He and others were grabbing "a handful of brakes" way too frequently. Some of his memories leave you wondering how complete a story he's telling. He recounts a tale of an ex-girlfriend coming to visit him before the USPRO Championships in Philadelphia in 1991. He brings up that he had seen her at least once a year every year since he went off to Europe. He first went over in 1986. He also finishes with an ending that, while fitting, leaves you suddenly feeling like he's holding back for volume two.
Can we trust this memory? We can't claim to be great literary sleuths. We didn't see any of the signs we think we see when reading memoirs that ring false. There was no dog in a hat, but there was nothing that fit too perfectly either.
The publisher also didn't do the book justice. We found some errors that related to cycling. An eagle-eyed copy editor should have been able to find them and correct them before the book went to press. And they could have found some more pictures of the guy. It's hard to believe that the only photographic images that are available of Parkin made it into the book. They were so short on pictures, they threw in a photo of Roger de Vlaeminck. The publisher is VeloPress, as in VeloNews' book publishing arm. You'd think they'd have more resources to track down photos and find cycling experts who could read the book a few times before it was published.
As some other memoirist "wrote," it's not about the bike. Bike riding and racing are merely the prism through which Parkin views the world. While he can be termed a "nearly man" for how close he got to victories and the biggest races, it isn't that he just missed the cut or merely that he was there. It's that he tells a very good yarn about things we nominally know. We feel we saw much more, got to know the guy on the inside, and are richer for the experience. We wish we had gone over when we were younger even more now that we've read A Dog In A Hat. Our spidey-senses tell us to trust him, that he wasn't portraying "Joe Parkin" but Joe Parkin.