“Raised by Penguins” Seen as Last Gasp of Creative Non-Fiction

CALUMET CITY, Ill.  This suburb of Chicago has long been known for The Smiley Towers, twin water towers that bear the insipid round yellow face associated with the slogan “Have a Nice Day,” but last year townspeople were confronted by a darker, more disturbing work with a local connection.  “I don’t know as I believe what that young man wrote,” says Erwin Schlacter, former principal of Mike Tomczak High School, referring to Jeff Flect, a 2009 graduate.  “I don’t recall things the way he wrote them down.”

Schlacter is referring to Flect’s book “Raised by Penguins,” which won the coveted Hornel-Scheusser Prize for Creative Non-Fiction last month, bringing with it a $1,500 prize, a teaching fellowship, a publishing contract and a cool fleece pullover that is his to keep even when the next winner is chosen.  “I’m honored, and humbled,” Flect says to this reporter when asked how his life has changed.  “And for all those idiots who question the truth of what I’ve written, they can blow it out their shorts.”

Controversy arose when people who knew Flect came forward and swore that there had not been a second ice age in the first decade of the twenty-first century, and that, as a result, the central claim of his book was false.  “I knew Jeff, we lived right down the street,” says Heidi Klamholz.  “His mother was your typical cold Presbyterian, but she was no penguin.”

“I’m worried about Jeff.  He doesn’t seem to have many friends among the other birds.”

Flect was able to avoid scrutiny during the judging process for the award because both of his parents died in mysterious circumstances shortly after he received his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Non-Fiction from the University of Minnesota-Mankota, where he was enrolled in a low-residency program while he claimed to be circumnavigating the world by pogo stick.  “Nobody took the loss of my parents harder than me,” he says with an audible lump in his throat.  “I really could have used them if I ever turn my hand to creative fiction-fiction.”

“For next week’s assignment, I want you to make up some truth about yourself.”

The creative non-fiction genre has been criticized for its sometimes strained relationship with the truth, and some of its most noteworthy practitioners such as Dave Eggers and Augustan Burroughs have been embroiled in lawsuits by those who felt they were defamed by their works.  “I wouldn’t want to be embroiled in a lawsuit,” Flect says, shaking his head with concern over the risks inherent in his chosen art form.  “I burnt my hand once taking an English muffin with tomato and cheese out of a toaster oven, that was enough broiling for me.”



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