Just what are we supposed to make of this book?
Chuck Barris’s autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a very unusual tell-all. Mr. Barris tells the story of his rise to fame as the producer of a long series of successful television game shows: The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, a string of others culminating in his most infamous work The Gong Show. Because he pulls no punches, this part of Barris’s autobiography makes for very interesting reading, at times difficult, uncomfortable reading. He does not paint a flattering picture of himself at all.
The story of his rise and the behind the scenes look at the game shows he produced are mirrored in the story of his own personal decline. Never a critical success, by the time Barris produces The Gong Show in the late 1970’s he is regularly hailed as the cause of the death of television by every critic in every major paper across the country. People he meets at parties accuse him of destroying American culture. Once he begins to believe the critics his own mental state begins a steep decline. He ends up locked inside a two room hotel suite for months on end.
All of this would have made for a fascinating story on it’s own, but there is the issue of the third story line. Barris claims that while he was producing a string of highly successful game shows he was also acting as a trained assassin for the C.I.A. He’s not kidding about this. He claims that he was able to use the games shows as a cover for his assignments, taking a winning Dating Game couple on their first date in a European capitol after which he performed an assassination. As a spy novel, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind works very well. While he doesn’t break any new ground as thrillers go, Barris gets the jaded, ironic narrative voice right, he understands the intricacies of an espionage plot line and he can build the appropriate atmosphere as well.
But I’m going to go out on a limb and state flat out that I don’t believe Chuck Barris was ever an assassin. No way. Not a chance. If I didn’t like the book, I could chuck this plotline away as a sad attempt to grab attention, one way to be sure the book really sells. That may be true, but I really loved the book.
I’m surprised to say this but I thought Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was terrific. I found Chuck Barris to have a provocative, original voice, much like John Fante’s voice in Ask of the Dust, one of rage coming from the back streets, America’s underbelly speaking from the darkness. Take this passage from near the end of the book after Barris has gone pretty far down near the bottom of his decline. While promoting the failed movie version of The Gong Show he appears on an Idaho morning talk show where the host, Chuck Dawn basically attacks him on-air.
I don’t recall much of what Chuck Dawn and I chatted about–only that he wore short white whoopee socks, and I detest a man who wears short whoopee socks of any color. Whoopee socks come up to the ankle, and any uy who dresses in a suit and tie and ears whoopee socks is a real Charlie B-Minor dork. I’ve always believed that a man who displays his ankles is evil at heart. Grown men who wear whoopee socks revolt me in much the same way as grown men who still wear their college class rings. Or grown men who wear their letter sweaters to class reunions, Or grown men who eat filet of sole for dinner. Or grown men who weigh the same as they did in high school. Or grown men who wear miniature campaign rippons in their coat lapels. Or grown men who tuck their ties into the top of their slacks, or their shirttails into their underwear. They’re all evil at heart. I thought about these things as they marched us to the stuidio that aired “The Morning Show.”
At this point in the novel Barris has reached his own personal Heart of Darkness. That’s a good parrallel for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness transposed to the world of American television. By making himself a literal assassin instead of just someone who “killed television,” Barris is up to something. Just what he’s up to I’m not sure. But I’ll argue that’s something that makes a great novel a great novel. But does it make an autobiography a great autobiography?
Whether it’s a complete, cynical put-on; a true account of his career with the C.I.A.; a metaphor for his own mental collapse; or a symptom of some deeper mania, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was not just a good read, it was a blast. It’s going to be on my top-ten-favorite-reads of 2014 list.