An Author Gets Unmasked, and a Publisher's Financial Headache Worsens

Last week, DailyFinance came up with a five-figure estimate for how much money Henry Holt, an imprint of Macmillan, would need to spend to fix the mess made by a lying source in Charles Pellegrino's recent bestseller The Last Train to Hiroshima, an account of events leading up to the U.S.'s atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. Pellegrino's book had received stellar reviews, strong sales, and a film option from Avatar auteur James Cameron -- and the disputed claims, unearthed by The New York Times, put a huge damper on the book's strong start.

Now the publisher probably wishes its headache only ran into the five figures. Instead, it's a lot worse. Holt has now halted production on Last Train to Hiroshima, according to the Associated Press, after being unable to confirm that two key figures in the book actually existed. Retailers and wholesalers that wish to return the book will receive full credit. No further copies will be printed or shipped.

It gets worse. Now, Pellegino himself seems to have become the latest in a long, not-so-illustrious list of literary fakers who have dotted the book publishing landscape.

A Phony Ph.D.?

"It is with deep regret that Henry Holt and Company announces that we will not print, correct or ship copies of Charles Pellegrino's The Last Train from Hiroshima," the publisher said in a statement on Monday. "It is easy to understand how even the most diligent author could be duped by a source, but we also understand that opens that book to very detailed scrutiny."

Holt asked Pellegrino to provide the name of a priest he'd identified pseudonymously as Reverend John MacQuitty, who allegedly presided over the funeral of a Hiroshima resident, Father Mattias, at the time of the bombing. The publisher could not prove either MacQuitty or Mattias existed. Pellegrino's explanation, in an interview with The Washington Post, was that he wanted to protect the elderly MacQuitty from trouble.

But detailed scrutiny of Pellegrino's past uncovered far deeper problems. The author calls himself Dr. Charles Pellegrino, touting a Ph.D. earned in 1982 at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. But when the AP called Victoria to confirm, the university said it had no record of Pellegrino's completing his doctorate. Last week, the university told blogger David Brennan, who detailed the potential extent of Pellegrino's truth-stretching on a James Cameron website: "Although he did do some Ph.D. study, we can't find any record of him actually completing or graduating."

Pellegrino asserted to the Post that he did receive his doctorate, but that it was revoked in 1984 when he got caught in a battle between creationists and evolutionists at the university. "People who should have been defending me threw me to the wolves," he said.

'Reads Like a Dream'

Brennan also questioned passages from Pellegrino's earlier books, on topics ranging from September 11 to The Titanic, and shot down the author's assertion that he had inspired Michael Crichton to write his 1991 bestseller Jurassic Park. Against this backdrop of questionable claims came a terse letter from the 509th Composite Group -- surviving members of the unit that flew attack planes to Hiroshima -- listing in detail what Pellegrino got wrong about the Enola Gay mission, including a supposed statement from the pilot, Paul Tibbetts, claiming that the Nagasaki bombing was unnecessary. "This erroneous statement by Tibbets does not appear anywhere...and is another complete fabrication."

These newest developments leave those like New York Times book critic Dwight Garner, who deemed Pellegrino's book "sober and authoritative" and "a clear-eyed catalog of every such horror, and not for the weak-stomached," re-evaluating their judgment. "At first, it seemed that Charles Pellegrino was duped by a fantasist, but now it looks like he may have been one himself," Garner says. "It's another occasion where you wish publishers employed fact-checkers. His book reads like a dream. Sadly, it may have, in part, been one."

Fact and Non-Fiction

Now Pellegrino joins a rogues gallery of writers who thought non-fiction would be the perfect container for made-up stories: Holocaust survivors Herman Rosenblat and Mischa Defonseca; would be ghetto memoirist Margaret "Jones" Seltzer; ex-journalists Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair; and recovery-memoirist James Frey. The Pellegrino case will face all the usual questions about fact-checking, and how so many people could fall for lies presented as truth.

And then we'll move on to the next fabulist. With time, there might even be a comeback: Frey, after all, isn't doing too badly, what with a New York Times bestselling novel, Bright Shiny Morning, and a young adult series slated for publication this fall.

But is this cycle of anguish overblown? David Shields, whose book Reality Hunger calls for recodfying the blurry line between fact and non-fiction, believes that Pellegrino, Frey, and the others are "worst-case scenarios that get deployed to position nonfiction as subset of journalism," from a culture that needs a scapegoat to expiate its sins.

"From the beginning of time, nonfiction writers have invented," Shields says. "Thucydides made up generals' speeches in History of the Pelopennesian Wars. DeQuincey's Confessions of an Opium Eater is heavily fictionalized. Orwell's Such, Such Were the Joys was questioned in its every detail by classmates. Nonfiction isn't 'true'; it's a framing device to foreground contemplation, or at least the nonfiction I'm interested in is -- nonfiction at the highest reaches of literary art."

For now, though further printings have been halted, Holt will no longer publish Pellegrino, and the movie deal has undoubtedly been derailed. But the story of The Last Train to Hiroshima isn't over. The author told the Post that he is in the process of acquiring the book's paperback rights and hopes to publish a corrected version. And the controversy inevitably appears to have boosted hardcover sales.

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