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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.
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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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 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.
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 Disney biographies, one that may start readers searching for the real Walt. Carl Hays
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