a novella by
130 pages, $9.95 cover price
($5 if ordered from the MSR Online Bookstore)
Release date: 2011
Welcome to the world of Douglas Myles, professional mimic, where comedians dominate the entertainment landscape, and Myles becomes the most famous of them all. His fans and rivals know whom he can mimic—every speaker in the world, it seems—but they still want to know the man behind the voices. Even when he stops performing and disappears from view, even after his death, their interest in him doesn’t fade. When an autobiographical but enigmatic manuscript is discovered, do lay comedy fans and Comedic Studies scholars have access and insight to the real Douglass Myles? Or has this tale of voices and silences, laughter and sadness, solitude and crowds, race and identity only just begun?
Douglas Myles–the protagonist in Tom Williams’s utterly brilliant The Mimic’s Own Voice— makes Rich Little look like a mute, and Kreskin a lucky guesser. The story of Myles is heart-clutching sad and hilarious, over and over. I haven’t read anything to match this great tale since the death of Donald Barthelme. In a voice both “scholarly” and tongue-in-cheek, Douglas Myles’s rise-and-fall story will stick with me forever.
In The Mimic’s Own Voice, Tom Williams writes like Paul Auster might if he were funnier or like Stanley Elkin might have if he’d ever been able to stop laughing. Darkly charming.
Unlike European writers, Americans seldom create novellas. Therefore, Tom Williams’s The Mimic’s Own Voice is a happy exception, one that makes an original, imaginative, stylish and entertaining contribution to this often neglected genre midway between the novel and short fiction.
The Mimic’s Own Voice
In the halcyon days of professional mimics, shortly after they’d outpaced their predecessors, the vernacular storytellers, who had, a decade earlier, wrested the comedic throne from the one-liner royalty, it would have been difficult to name a town of ten thousand souls that didn’t possess some venue where performed those artists who made their fame and fortune with stunning mimicry of the period’s political leaders and actors, athletes and musicians, scholars, and men of science. And at every performance inside those theaters, whether located in the Badger or Beaver State, all seats were filled, as were the aisles and exits, prompting accounts of fire marshals arriving with the intent of stopping the show, only to get so caught up in their own laughter and enjoyment that they would forget their professional function as disperser of those bunched so close together as to create a hazard. Even the streets and sidewalks outside the theaters: they would be massed by citizens who’d shown up too late to purchase tickets yet wouldn’t depart; those closest pressed their ears to the doors and relayed to the others the identity of whomever the mimic was, in the parlance of the trade, “doing.” And though many couldn’t hear a word from inside the theater, they could content themselves with memories of routines, reveling in their proximity to the men whose altered voices entertained them during radio and television broadcasts every night.
To many of today’s lay comedy fans, the names of these mimics are mostly forgotten, yet in no way should that diminish their celebrity. Banks, the enormous man whose voice could flutter as high as a soprano’s, then, in seconds, plunge to the rumble of a bass. O’Meara, who began life in an orphanage, where he pioneered his “Dialogue Act,” the pairing of two disparate celebrities-a governor and a gigolo-in an absurd conversation. Never once did he flub or misspeak. He always maintained a pure pair of voices, as if he could speak from both sides of his mouth. And Salvatore, who, at the height of his popularity, would be shot by a jealous lover, but until then, sang in the voices of the era’s best romantic crooners-better than the crooners, some said-and boasted of seducing thousands of women and not an inconsiderable number of men. (All this despite his five-foot height and a set of teeth no dentist had ever seen.) And, of course, Hernandez, the genius, who with his “Impromptu” shifted from celebrities to audience members as his subjects (though his mimicry of celebrities was as perfect as a recording); even when it was discovered that the real people whose voices he reproduced were indeed part of a paid entourage, no one could say his talents were fewer than he’d portrayed, only that his spontaneity was less than presented. After the brief scandal that attended this discovery-worse for mimics, in some respects, than Salvatore’s shooting-Hernandez returned to celebrities, on occasion trumping O’Meara’s “Dialogue,” with four- or five-way conversations, never once losing track of whose voice he was to match his to, and his fortunes barely crested.
These giants cast tremendous shadows, in which numerous others toiled and thrived, most of their names lost even to the most meticulous of Comedic Studies scholars today, yet it is plain that this period represented the mimics’ greatest triumph, a time when the most hubristic never considered that they’d wear out their welcome and be replaced, just as they’d dispatched the vernacular storytellers. But, by and by, the audiences for the mimics diminished and turned increasingly toward the next group of up and comers, a group of young men whose penetrating satires and caustic wits earned them the label of the social critics.
But perhaps the greatest of all mimics did not perform during these grand old days. By the time of his birth, the social critics had set the table for their own downfall, and those earning the bulk of the nation’s applause were the observational comics, they who charmed with brash, often profane humor, taut timing, and the pungent accuracy of their commentary. Overheard, now and again, from critics who’d straddled the three distinct decades, was the argument that mimics fell from grace because even with their different acts they all did the same thing: duplicate voices. The social critics had variety to their material, but they too became indistinguishable from one another, as they shared the same targets, and one can only complain about the government or intolerance or consumerism in a limited number of ways. It was, finally, the observational comics who aimed their jabs in a direction that promised endless notoriety: at the people themselves. “No matter where you go,” wrote one anonymous editorial writer, “laughter spills out of private homes, enormous theaters and tiny taverns, as long as the featured performer keeps his material fresh. And as long as the subject is ordinary human foibles, it seems the observational comic has an endless supply.”
At this time, not only did the mimics no longer command the stage, most had succumbed to old age and disease, leaving behind only O’Meara, and uncovered in a series of articles appearing in the National Herald Daily was this unsettling fact: the eighty-seven year old dressed each morning in his cutaway tux, pinned a dead orchid to his lapel, and waited by the phone for a call from his agent, a man who’d died in a boating accident twenty years previous. The next week, this tragedy found its way into some observational comics’ routines, who capped jokes with lines such as this: “If the phone rings, will he even know which voice to answer in?” (Quietly, a month after the articles, O’Meara passed away, and his funeral, paid for by an anonymous patron, was attended by two people: a Presbyterian minister and the nursing home orderly who’d found O’Meara dead.) Such jokes typified the new breed of comic: in virtually everything they found a punch line, including the last days of addled mimics. After O’Meara’s death, critics and comics both predicted mimicry would go by way of knock-knock jokes, which scholars today consider the advent of professional comedy but haven’t been heard on stage since the days of long beards and virgin brides. And at that point, who could disagree? Bernard Sikes, a prototypical observational comic who performed in the days of the social critics, would claim, “Life is funnier than any joke you could make up,” a fact borne out by a glance at the newspapers of the day.
Shortly after the O’Meara incident, one read of top-level government figures taking bribes and evangelists caught with mistresses-the standard fare of social critics-but also of neighbors in subdivisions shooting at one another during property line feuds, housewives operating gambling parlors in basements, teens hijacking city buses and toddlers trading baby sisters for puppies. At such a time, who could foresee anything like a return to those days of tuxedo-clad men behind bulky microphones, turning their backs to the audience, then turning around to reveal disguised voices that embraced the stammers, lisps and strangled vowels of their subjects?
Still and all, it was into this environment that Douglas Myles was born. Years later, when it was whispered he possessed powers defying explanation, some facetiously speculated he must have willed his birth in these times in order to provide himself the challenge he craved. And though few considered this charge seriously, none could deny there were aspects of the man that made such a legend appropriate, legend being the preferred method of dealing with the spectacular figure, as it confirms he has a fantastic means of acquiring his talents, to which the average mortal has no access.
When he first emerged in the spotlight, and throughout his professional career-a total of just over seven years-little was known about his background, which allowed speculation and intrigue to surround him like air; but thankfully a manuscript was discovered in his former house two years ago, ten years after his death, by a team of students led by the comedy historian Anton Greene. In the years that the two-bedroom townhouse had been restored and opened to the public, the manuscript and other papers had been hiding in plain sight. “One of the kids,” Greene claims, “found a battered-looking umbrella file in storage!” Myles’s composition of it has been authenticated by a number of peer-reviewed studies, thus replacing the dubious and unauthorized biographies that sprang up after his death, as Greene joked, “like mushrooms following a spring rain.” In their assemblages of rumor and ill-fashioned fiction, those biographers would have one believe Myles was a runaway reared by a family of mesmerists, or that he grew up with an aboriginal grandfather in an adobe, surrounded by little other than the sound of his own voice and the wisdom of the ancients. But they are out of print now and should probably be mentioned as little as possible.
Myles’s manuscript, housed now at The Pratt-Falls Center, Dr. Greene’s home institution, excited layman and scholars at first, for all suspected it had been written for publication. Yet no contract exists among Myles’s papers (and, as the reader shall see, he was quite the saver), nor can one be found in the files of any publishers. This increased speculation that a bidding war for its rights would take place, though after the manuscript’s seventy-three handwritten pages were initially read, no offers, save for the Pratt-Falls’s, were forthcoming. From its curious usage of second person, to its enigmatic opening and closing lines, “Your name is Douglas Myles . . . . They never really listened,” it does not divulge entirely his secrets, while it raises mysteries all its own. Still, there are a host of details which offer, for the first time, a definitive glimpse into his early life.
He was born in the Middle West, in a middle-sized city, known primarily then and now as a test market for fast food restaurants, the only child of Angela and Ellis Myles, a black mother and white father. In those days, such a combination was virtually unheard of, as, at the time of their only son’s birth, the Myles’s union was only three years away from being illegal in many states. Now one sees such couples and their beautiful broods of children and hardly notices; some insist that interracial marriages will further increase due to Myles’s manuscript, as hopeful parents attempt to capture a genius as immense and profitable as his in their scions. However, Myles, during his life, never spoke of this openly. His parents died when he was eighteen, killed in a car crash, the fault of an intoxicated driver named Grimes. But to those few who knew him, such as Lamar Jackson, the famed black comic, and those who simply knew of him, he said he was a light-skinned black man. According to Peter Szok, who along with Anton Greene is considered the dean of contemporary Comedic Studies, this demi-fabrication signals in part why his mimicry may have been so singular and accurate, as Myles never stopped practicing. “Even in day to day affairs,” Szok states, “he was mimicking someone he was not.” Those who sought to ascribe a political motivation to Myles’s self-identification as black were overjoyed to discover his parents’ community activism -in particular his social-worker mother-but were disappointed by the following: “It was easier to tell people you were black.” Easier than what, many wonder. But, as the reader shall see, simple answers are rarely forthcoming when the subject is Douglas Myles.
If you’d like to read the rest of the story, order The Mimic’s Own Voice by Tom Williams today.