Truth in Advertising


Paul Murphy was a Vietnam veteran whose legs had been blown off at the battle of Da Nang and who now lived in one of the Veterans Administration hospitals in Boston. I met him in my senior year of high school when I had to write a term paper for a modern-history class. A large part of the assignment involved our ability not merely to research but also to interview people.

I spent many days interviewing doctors and nurses and orderlies, which eventually led me to Paul. Paul was skeptical at first, but I was able to put him at ease, mostly by bringing him cigarettes and once a bottle of vodka. One day, while I was visiting him in his hospital room, a place that smelled of disinfectant and sometimes of urine, I asked Paul Murphy about a book that we had read in class called Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic, who would, years later, be played by Tom Cruise in the movie of Kovic’s life.

“Have I read it?” Murphy asked, rhetorically, between drags on a Marlboro. “I am it.”

“Were you born on the Fourth of July?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “April twenty-seventh.”

“I see.”

“I wonder if you do,” he said, lighting another cigarette off the one he’d already lit.

Paul Murphy was an angry man. But he was learning to deal with his anger. Once a week he read to inner-city children and the blind. He loved bowling and was in a league. They bowled and drank beer and laughed and had team shirts. He was seeing a woman who worked at the hospital, a young woman who had great compassion. Her name was Phyllis and she wrote letters to the governor about the need for more handicapped ramps in and around Boston. They got tattoos of each other’s names on their buttocks. Paul said they had to be creative during their private time, “on account of the fact I’m a limp dick.” I put all of this in my paper, which I titled A Living Death. I received an A.

My history teacher, Mr. Stevens, said in his brief evaluation:

Fin, this is a paper of great maturity and unusual sensitivity. I was deeply moved at times. You should be proud of this work. Nice job.

And I was proud. The only problem was that I had fabricated every aspect of the paper, including the person of Paul Murphy. Not one ounce of it was true, not his name or his smoking or anger or missing limbs or his passion for bowling. I invented everything. I said that he had been a star soccer player in high school in Ashtabula, Ohio, because I liked the sound of the word Ashtabula. I said that if he could stand he would have been 6' 2". I said that his penis didn’t work properly because I wanted to work the word penis into the story because it made me laugh when I saw it in print.

It’s not that I didn’t try to do the assignment. I did, in a half-assed way. I spoke with a friend of mine’s older brother, Larry Gallagher, who’d been in Vietnam. He was the assistant manager of the bowling alley, Parkway Lanes, though mostly he sold nickel bags of pot in the back. I interviewed him there, if by interview you mean ask him a few questions while he sprayed disinfectant into the bowling shoes. I asked Larry to tell me about Vietnam and the scars it had left him with. Larry said it didn’t leave him with any scars except for where he cut his leg once on a jeep door when he was drunk. I asked him to tell me about the lasting pain of it all. He said it wasn’t very painful but it was boring a lot of the time. He said it was fun firing his machine gun and that “R&R was great because Vietnamese girls really know how to screw.” I thanked him for his time and then he let me bowl two frames for free but charged me for the shoes.

Alfred Hitchcock said that drama was life with all the boring bits taken out. I believed that in creating Paul Murphy, who surely must have existed in some form somewhere in the United States, that’s all I had done. I wasn’t interested in unearthing the truth so much as creating a truth I wanted to believe, that I knew others would believe. Because it seemed true.

Maybe it’s not