U.P. authors and their characters indulge in hoaxes, with mixed results

by Tyler Tichelaar

1501_sr_reminiscencesofahoaxerReminiscences of a Hoaxer

by Bill Van Kosky
If anyone ever knew how to play a practical joke, it is Bill Van Kosky, and in Reminiscences of a Hoaxer, he comes clean about all the jokes he has been pulling throughout his life. Practical jokes are in his blood, as evidenced by the book’s opening chapter about all the tricks his parents, siblings and extended family played on each other. This somewhat dysfunctional upbringing soon set Van Kosky onto a life of near-criminal hoaxing behavior, including some extremely elaborate plots that required finding accomplices to go in on the joke and help him scare other friends. As a teenager, he was not above staging a fake car hijacking — complete with a shooting — to scare unsuspecting passengers.
But that was only the beginning of Van Kosky’s hoaxing skills. He went on to college at Purdue, where he developed into an “equal opportunity practical joker,” meaning he would put jokes over on friends as well as anyone else. After regaling the reader with many fine jokes from his college days, he tells how he was hired at Northern Michigan College (today’s Northern Michigan University), where he quickly realized “higher education was, and is, a hoaxer’s paradise.” From that point, he divides the book up into hoaxes he pulled by decade, from the 1960s onward, and even then, he informs us he is only telling us about ten percent of the hoaxes he pulled.
Most of Van Kosky’s hoaxes came in the form of letters that appeared to be official and legitimate, but always had just enough exaggerations in them to make them questionable. He became an expert at making fake letterheads and mailing letters to distant friends or family members who would re-mail them to the “victim,” so they appeared to be coming from another city.
One of my favorite hoaxes was a letter Van Kosky sent to a niece. This niece had gone deer hunting and shot a doe that was closer to being a fawn. Van Kosky asked her father to keep the deer hide for him. He then sent his niece a series of letters followed by a package. The letters informed her she had been named as an heir in the estate of the wonder dog, Lassie, but another letter told her the will was being contested. In the end, she did receive her inheritance, which turned out to be a package containing the tanned deer hide, made to resemble Lassie’s coat.
Another letter I enjoyed was one sent to an aunt interested in wagon trains and pioneers. This letter advertised a special covered wagon vacation. While the aunt considered taking the trip, a follow-up letter came about the first trip and the extreme and even tragic conditions the vacationers had experienced, which apparently made the aunt decide the trip wasn’t for her; but she never caught on that it was completely fictional to begin with.
Numerous other hoaxes included fake deer hunting contests, double memos sent to people applying for the same job to say both got it, letters to people interested in genealogy about disreputable ancestors, and employing a double agent who ended up siding with the hoaxed. Finally, Van Kosky admits others tried to hoax him, but no one ever succeeded except the worms he took fishing, who mysteriously disappeared one day.
Anyone who wants a laugh or enjoys an outlandish joke will enjoy Reminiscences of a Hoaxer. Van Kosky doesn’t plan a sequel, since email and texting have made hoax letters more improbable today, but I’m sure Van Kosky, and even many of his victims, will agree it was fun while it lasted.


1501_sr_mans_workMan’s Work

by Alan Robertson
Alan Robertson’s characters in his latest novel, Man’s Work, indulge in a different kind of hoax — not for laughs, but for their own protection and eventually to their financial advantage.
Robertson, who has a string of crime novels under his belt, usually focuses on telling things from a detective’s viewpoint, but this time makes us ride along with the criminals, and what a ride it is. We are introduced immediately to Zim and Billy, who just killed a policeman in Gaylord, then stole a Cadillac and have its elderly owners in the trunk as they drive over the Mackinac Bridge into the U.P. When they stop to let the car’s owners out of the trunk, the old man gets violent, so they end up killing the couple and hiding the bodies in the woods off the highway.
Zim and Billy planned to hide out in Minnesota, but when they find out from the wallet of the old man, Victor Vanka, that he has a house in nearby Loon Haven, they decide to hide out there, assuming the house will be empty. They are pleasantly surprised to find the house is a mansion in a private area, and even more surprised to find a naked Ukrainian woman named Iliana in one of the bedrooms. Iliana has been sold into slavery to Mr. Vanka, who told her to stay in the bedroom while he was gone, and she knew better than to disobey him. When Iliana finds out Zim and Billy killed Vanka, she is delighted, and quickly decides to help them.
Here is where the hoax begins. Turns out Vanka was a member of the mob. When a man named Kettleman calls the house wanting Vanka to take someone out, Iliana tells him to come over and they’ll talk. Kettleman has never met Vanka before, so Iliana convinces Zim to pretend he’s Vanka’s son, while Billy is one of Vanka’s thugs. Soon, Zim and Billy are hired hitmen.
What happens from that point is too fun to spoil. Yes, even though more than a dozen people end up dead before the book is over, it’s hilarious. I never would have suspected how funny murder could be, or how much I would grow to like Zim, Billy and Iliana.
Here’s one sample of the humor: When Zim and Billy first meet Iliana, she asks Billy whether he’s the one who killed Vanka. When he says he is, “She came close, wrapping her arms around him and kissing him on the mouth, lips pressing. Billy liked it a lot but worried about first impressions — he’d had double onions on his burger in Manistique.”
Another hilarious line occurs when one of the people who hired Billy and Zim to kill someone is unhappy with their work and demands a refund. Zim replies, “Does this look like Wal-Mart? There are no refunds. None, nada, put that out of your mind. But I don’t want you to go away unsatisfied…” and offers fifty percent off on a second murder.
Besides the humor, I also appreciated that the book was not gory. People get shot and strangled, but the murders are minimally described.
Plenty of twists and turns occur as the three main characters plot, scheme and make split-minute decisions. I won’t reveal whether they get away scot-free, but I found the ending surprising and strangely satisfying. In my opinion, Man’s Work is Robertson’s best novel to date.
—Tyler Tichelaar
Editor’s Note: Tichelaar is the author of The Best Place. All books reviewed in this column are available in local and online bookstores. For book review submission guidelines, visit www.marquettemonthly.org

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