Perfect American

Perfect American

by peter stephan Jungk
     
 

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The Perfect American is a fictionalized biography of Walt Disney's final months, as narrated by Wilhelm Dantine, an Austrian cartoonist who worked for Disney in the 40s and 50s, illustrating sequences for Sleeping Beauty. It is also the story of Dantine himself, who desperately seeks Disney's recognition at the risk of his own ruin.

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Overview

The Perfect American is a fictionalized biography of Walt Disney's final months, as narrated by Wilhelm Dantine, an Austrian cartoonist who worked for Disney in the 40s and 50s, illustrating sequences for Sleeping Beauty. It is also the story of Dantine himself, who desperately seeks Disney's recognition at the risk of his own ruin.

Peter Stephan Jungk has infused a new energy into the genre of fictionalized biography. Dantine, imbued with a sense of European superiority, first refuses to submit to Disney's rule, but is nevertheless fascinated by the childlike omnipotence of a man who identifies with Mickey Mouse. We discover Walt's delusions of immortality via cryogenic preservation, his tirades alongside his Abraham Lincoln talking robot, his invitation of Nikita Khruschev to Disneyland once he learns that the Soviet Premier wants to visit the park, his utopian visions of his EPCOT project, and his backyard labyrinth of toy trains. Yet, if at first Walt seems to have a magic wand granting him all his wishes, we soon discover that he is as tortured as the man who tells his story.

After Disney refuses to acknowledge Dantine's self-professed talent and hard work, he fires the frustrated cartoonist for writing, along with other staff members, an anonymous polemical memorandum regarding Disney's jingoistic politics. Years later, in the late 60s, still deeply wounded by his dismissal, Dantine follows Disney's trail to capture what makes Walt tick. Dantine wants us to grasp what it is like to live and breathe around the man who thought of himself as more famous than Santa Claus. Walt's wife Lillian, his confidante and perhaps his mistress Hazel, his brother Roy, his children Diane and Sharon, his close and ill-treated collaborators, and famous figures such as Peter Ustinov, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, and Geraldine Chaplin, all contribute to the novel's animation, its feel for the life of the Disney world.

This deeply researched work not only provides interesting interpretations of what made Walt Disney a central figure in American popular culture, but also explores the complex expectations of gifted European immigrants who came to the United States after World War II with preconceived notions of how to achieve the American dream.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"a surreal, meditative, episodic account of the last days of Walt Disney." -The New York Times

Publishers Weekly
Peter Stephan Jungk explores the dark side of Walt Disney's Technicolor life in The Perfect American, a fictionalized biography of the venerable cartoon magnate. Wilhelm Dantine, a German immigrant and cartoonist fired by Disney for protesting Walt's supposed refusal to open his Anaheim theme park to Nikita Khrushchev in 1959, stalks his aging former boss, trying to pierce his wholesome veneer. Disney emerges as a megalomaniac (he considers himself more famous than Jesus Christ) haunted by mortality and scornful of the world that worships him. Trans. from the German by Michael Hofmann. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
And, no, there's absolutely no weighted meaning in that title. While it would be next to impossible to find a subject who came to a book with more symbolic heft attached to him than Walt Disney, as a character the man seems relatively unrepresented in literature and film. Doing quite the fine job of changing that fact is Jungk (Franz Werfel: A Life in Prague, Vienna and Hollywood, 1990), who takes on the dream-maker himself in his utterly irascible and unpleasant old age. At the opening here-of a novel whose title is almost as fraught with significance as Disney himself-the old man has gone back in 1966 to the tiny town in Missouri where he and his brother Roy were born and from whence came the inspiration for the layout of the Disney theme parks. Roy was the one who was good with the money, not the ideas like Walt. Of course, the great open secret of Walt's life is that he didn't really do much of the concrete work that made his name known in the farthest corners of the world-he just hired the best of the best, put them on a short leash, and slapped his name on their product. This is a point driven home again and again by the story's resident neurotic Wilhem Dantine. An Austrian-born cartoonist (and real-life figure), Dantine worked for Walt for many years, getting fired just after the relatively disappointing performance of Sleeping Beauty, which Dantine had worked on. Years later, Dantine is practically a wandering vagrant with not much more to do than follow Walt around in an attempt to confront him (it's a sublime moment when Dantine finally manages to butt heads with Walt in person). More like fictionalized biography than straight fiction, Jungk's book is a fine achievement, makingsuch a remote, brilliant, and rather hateful Walt Disney a flawed and painfully human creation. Sharp as a razor: The Perfect American says more about Disney, and the seduction of megalomania, than a stack of biographies.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781590511152
Publisher:
Other Press, LLC
Publication date:
04/28/2004
Edition description:
New Edition
Pages:
192
Product dimensions:
6.25(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.80(d)

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Booklist 2004

Jungk, Peter Stephan. The Perfect American. Tr. By Michael Hofmann.
June 2004. 192p. Other/Handsel, $18 (0-59051-115-8).
By Carl Hays.
May 15, 2004

Did the man who created Mickey Mouse really have a strong, racist hostility for African Americans or an almost McCarthy-esque hatred of Communism? According to Wilhelm Dantine, narrator of this fictionalized biography of Walt Disney's final years, these and other dark traits fill out the true character of the great cartoonist, making the title The Perfect American an ironic, backhanded slap at Disney's legacy. Yet Dantine, a former Disney studio animator with an admitted dependency on a drug called Walter Elias Disney, is himself a tortured man and on a lifelong mission to avenge his premature firing after he made major contributions to the classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In a scene worth the book's price, Dantine finally confronts Disney with his planned tirade of accusations, and the results completely surprise him. At turns fascinating and comical, Jungk's novel hews so closely to well-researched biographical data that the line between fact and fiction often becomes blurred. An interesting companion piece to existing biographies, one that may start readers searching for the real Walt.

Christian Science Monitor 2004

The mouse and me
By Ron Charles July 13, 2004

An Austrian-born cartoonist ruins his life pining for Disney's approval - and just a little credit

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.
(c) Copyright 2004. The Christian Science Monitor

Kirkus 2004

SECTION: FICTION
The Perfect American
March 15, 2004

And, no, there's absolutely no weighted meaning in that title.

While it would be next to impossible to find a subject who came to a book with more symbolic heft attached to him than Walt Disney, as a character the man seems relatively unrepresented in literature and film. Doing quite the fine job of changing that fact is Jungk, who takes on the dream-maker himself in his utterly irascible and unpleasant old age. At the opening hereof a novel whose title is almost as fraught with significance as Disney himself the old man has gone back in 1966 to the tiny town in Missouri where he and his brother Roy were born and from whence came the inspiration for the layout of the Disney theme parks. Roy was the one who was good with the money, not the ideas like Walt. Of course, the great open secret of Walt's life is that he didn't really do much of the concrete work that made his name known in the farthest corners of the world he just hired the best of the best, put them on a short leash, and slapped his name on their product. This is a point driven home again and again by the story's resident neurotic Wilhem Dantine. An Austrian-born cartoonist (and real-life figure), Dantine worked for Walt for many years, getting fired just after the relatively disappointing performance of Sleeping Beauty, which Dantine had worked on. Years later, Dantine is practically a wandering vagrant with not much more to do than follow Walt around in an attempt to confront him (it's a sublime moment when Dantine finally manages to butt heads with Walt in person). More like fictionalized biography than straight fiction, Jungk's book is a fine achievement, making such a remote, brilliant, and rather hateful Walt Disney a flawed and painfully human creation.

Sharp as a razor: The Perfect American says more about Disney, and the seduction of megalomania, than a stack of biographies.

Los Angeles Times Book Review 2004

FILM ON PAPER A life reanimated: The Perfect American by Peter Stephan Jungk

Sunday, June 13, 2004
By Richard Schickel, author of "The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art, and Commerce of Walt Disney."

Walt Disney died in 1966. He was only 65 years old, but he was already — not least in his own mind — a myth. Early in "The Perfect American," Peter Stephan Jungk's historical novel (perhaps we should call it a historical fantasia) about him, Disney murmurs to himself, "I am a leader, a pioneer. I am one of the great men of our time.... More people know my name than that of Jesus Christ. Billions have seen at least one of my films. It's something that never existed before me: an art form, a concept, that managed to address and move and delight the whole of mankind. I have created a universe. My fame will outlast the centuries."

Or possibly not. Jungk has created a dark doppelganger for Walt, an animator he fired who becomes his stalker, and, as the narrator of this version of Disney's life, our surrogate. His name is Wilhelm Dantine, and he is far from being a perfect American: He was born in Austria and exemplifies a peculiarly European attitude about American popular culture — he is more intense about it, more smitten by it, more destabilized by it than most of us born, raised and daily accustomed to its genial trashiness. A fictional mistress Jungk has invented for his tale reflects on Dantine's type: "My guess is that every reasonably successful man has an archenemy, someone who makes it his business to persecute him. Usually he won't even know. Someone who reveres you and despises you at the same time. Who dogs your every step with his envy. Who won't let you go. Not until you're six feet under."

It is the function of this figure, full of spite, envy and obsession, to call Disney's self-regard into question, to keep reminding him (and the reader) of the vulgarity, the intellectual and artistic reductionism that lay beneath his vast, although hard-won, success. There are other times when this process approaches the surreal. At one point, Jungk imagines Disney in soulful conversation with his audioanimatronic Abe Lincoln when the robot has gone on the fritz and requires counsel from his master. At another, Dantine invades Disney's backyard when Walt is puttering with his beloved scale-model railroad that circled it. His intention is not to physically harm the man. It is to say all the hateful things that have been festering in his mind since his firing. Their conversation is edgy but surprisingly civil until Walt starts crowing about how he came from nothing and made something of himself — the modern world's common-consent Merlin. To which Dantine replies, "An averagely successful American CEO is what you made of yourself." It's at this point that Walt launches himself at his tormentor, with the intent, at the least, to maim.

This fictional Disney has a right to his anger and paranoia. For one thing, the wild incidents Jungk conjures up for him occur in the last months of his life, when he was mortally ill but still denying the cancer that carried him off. For another — and this is, I think, the author's main point — he had reached an age when the need for introspection came upon him. It was an activity for which he had no gift. He always wanted to look ahead, not backward. So he was never obliged to live within the myth of his own genius, created by his flacks, eagerly parroted by the ever-supine press. He had, indeed, struggled up from the lowliest margins of society, had, indeed, known the hardest of hard times, both emotionally and economically. But now, a few grouchy intellectuals aside, everything he touched seemed wonderful to the world. And everything he touched turned to gold — nevermind that the fairy tales he retold on the screen had been robbed of their essential darkness and terror. Or that his nature films replaced the animal kingdom's Darwinian struggles for survival with the chipper cuddlesomeness that was the Magic Kingdom's hallmark. Or that his theme park rubbed the rawness out of human experience and drew mouse ears and smiley faces on the resultant blank spots.

He could live with all that. He had, indeed, wanted from the first to banish from his sight, his very consciousness, all the ugliness he had known in his abused and impoverished Midwestern childhood. He had, in the first flush of his studio's success in the 1930s, wanted to make it a paradise, full of happy artists, whistling while they worked. But the salaries were mean; the credit scant (except for Disney himself); the work, driven by the lash of his perfectionism, hard. They formed a union, struck his plant and turned Disney into a fierce right-winger. Jungk says, accurately I believe, that his wife insisted on twin beds because she could not, after this, bear the cries, whispers and thrashings of his troubled sleep.

How is a man to reconcile this contrast: Pretend to be beamish Uncle Walt, all the while knowing that his nature is otherwise — bleak, cold, driven, driving? How, indeed, does he live with the fact that he cannot — never could — draw the dear figures everyone associates with his name, could not even manage the stylized signature attached to every product of his empire that eventually became a vast corporation's logo?

These are huge lies. Living within them made Walt permanently mad — angry mad and, eventually (Jungk suggests), crazy mad. The genius he possessed — for entrepreneurship, not invention — was never enough for him. He wanted not just the fame and wealth he attained. He wanted to immortally bestride the world. Which is, of course, why that greatest of urban legends, that Disney was cryogenically preserved, took such an unshakable hold on the public. It just seemed so right, so totally appropriate to him.

Jungk gives no credence to that myth. He wants to explore the irony of his title. Walt Disney, in his view, was "the perfect American" precisely because he lost himself in the fantasy that accreted around him, which is, of course, what all of us do, albeit on a much more modest scale. None of us is quite as good, quite as potent, as we think we are in our headier moments. But most of us do not have access to the machinery that feeds our grandiosity. By the same token, when it is nighttime, and the machine is shut down, we are not subject to the kind of rages and paranoia that afflict this fictional Disney.

In his voice, I kept hearing echoes of Richard Nixon's. They were both men of talent, listening to the lonesome train whistles that promised escape from backgrounds too emotionally impoverished to nourish and sustain their vaulting ambitions. They wanted to command history, to become legends. Instead, they have become the stuff of slightly puzzled psychobiography.
And of fictions such as Jungk's, which is only partially successful. His inventions, powerful and darkly amusing as they often are, sit uneasily atop his well-researched facts. His Disney raves more than the real Walt actually did. On the other hand, I'm not sure the author wants us to lose ourselves in his story. I think he wants us to find ourselves in it, to reflect on fame and its power to distort not just our perceptions of "great" men, but on the way celebrity damages those men when they become possessed by their own falsified, falsifying images.

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Meet the Author

Peter Stephan Jungk

Peter Stephan Jungk was born in Los Angeles, raised in several European cities, and now lives in Paris. A former screenwriting fellow of the American Film Institute, he is the author of eight books, including the acclaimed biography Franz Werfel: A Life from Prague to Hollywood (1990) and the novels Tigor (Handsel Books, 2004), a finalist for the British Foreign Book Award, and The Perfect American (Handsel Books, 2004), a fictional biography of Walt Disney's last months, which had its premiere as an opera by Philip Glass at Madrid's Teatro Real in January 2013.

Michael Hofmann

Michael Hofmann has translated Bertolt Brecht, Joseph Roth, Patrick S, Herta Mueller, and Franz Kafka. He won the Translators' Association's Schlegel-Tieck Prize twice in 1988 for his adaptation of The Double Bass by Patrick S (1987), and in 1993 for his rendering of Wolfgang Koeppen's Death in Rome (1992). In 1999 he won the PEN/Book of the Month Club Translation Prize for The String of Pearls. His translation of his father's novel The Film Explainer, by Gert Hofmann, won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 1995. He has written and translated more than 35 books, winning eight awards for his translations and his poetry.

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