Stranger Truths


The 1969 literary hoax that became a bestseller

Richard Nixon, Jumbo jet, Concorde, Apollo 11, Woodstock, the Manson Family rampage, colour TV, Unix, Led Zeppelin, Monty Python, Butch Cassidy, Midnight Cowboy, the Beatles frozen in motion crossing Abbey Road, My Lai — in the global memory the watershed year of 1969 means Anglo-American politics, technology, entertainment and warfare. But it was a watershed year for English language publishing, too. The bestsellers included Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Ursula K Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, Desmond Morris' The Human Zoo, Henri Charrière's Papillon, Paul Gallico's The Poseidon Adventure, Ray Bradbury's I Sing the Body Electric, AJ Cronin's A Pocketful of Rye, John Cheever's Bullet Park, John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, VS Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas, Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, Irwin Shaw's Rich Man, Poor Man and, brooding over them all, Mario Puzo's The Godfather.

But one 1969 hit, which spent 13 weeks straight on the New York Times bestseller list, has been conveniently forgotten because it embarrassed the literary establishment. Not because it was soft porn (which it was) but because it took the pants off the unholy nexus of publishers, agents, PR-wallahs, jacket blurb-wallahs, festival-baazes and book review editors who conspire to mug the reading public by promoting certain books and authors at the expense of others, for reasons which have nothing to do with literary value.

Though forgotten now, Penelope Ashe's Naked Came the Stranger was a cult hit. Interestingly, it had a character in common with that year's blockbuster, The Godfather. At a suburban party in the curiously named King's Neck, "41 minutes from Manhattan and within sight (nine miles, through leaves) of the Connecticut shoreline," radio stars William and Gillian Blake are treated to a surprise performance by rising Mafia-sponsored crooner Johnny Alonga. The resemblance to Mario Puzo's Johnny Fontane, who sang at a Corleone wedding, is remarkable. Quite obviously, both Johnnies were Frank Sinatra.

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