Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News

  • November 2017
  • Graywolf Press
  • Hardcover, eBook, Audio
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Kevin Young traces the history of the hoax as a peculiarly American phenomenon—the legacy of P. T. Barnum's "humbug" culminating with the currency of Donald J. Trump's "fake news." Disturbingly, Young finds that fakery is woven from stereotype and suspicion, with race being the most insidious American hoax of all. He chronicles how Barnum came to fame by displaying figures like Joice Heth, a black woman whom he pretended was the 161-year-old nursemaid to George Washington, and "What is It?," an African-American man Barnum professed was a newly discovered missing link in evolution. Bunk then turns to the hoaxing of history and the ways that forgers, plagiarists, and frauds invent backstories and falsehoods to sell us lies about themselves and about the world in our own time, from pretend Native Americans Grey Owl and Nasdijj to the deadly imposture of Clark Rockefeller, from the made-up memoirs of James Frey to the identity theft of Rachel Dolezal. This brilliant and timely work asks what it means to live in a post-factual world of "truthiness" where everything is up for interpretation and everyone is subject to a contagious cynicism that damages our ideas of reality, fact, and art.

Reviews & Praise 

[An] enthralling and essential new study of our collective American love affair with pernicious and intractable moonshine. . . . Bunk, a panorama, a rumination and a polemic at once . . . delivers riches.

—Jonathan Lethem, New York Times Book Review

Bunk could hardly be more timely. . . . Young’s deeper argument is that we can’t escape race when we’re talking about hoaxes, because race itself—for all its implacable real-life effects—remains the most consequential hoax in American history.

—Robert Baird, Esquire

Riveting. . . . Young covers, and uncovers, America's long and varied history of deceptive practices.


Bunk traces with acuity and, somehow, humor America’s history of fake news and con men, the through line of which is our country’s greatest hoax: race.

—Bridget Read, Vogue

A sweeping, pointed, and utterly fascinating study on the rise of hoaxes. Though the book spans centuries, it's vital reading in this fraught, divisive era of 'fake news.'

Entertainment Weekly

Kevin Young’s rich history of fakery could not, in fact, be more urgent: This is a moment of deeply earned anxiety about the fate of truth itself, one in which science and fact and empiricism are threatened by the same choose-your-own-reality impulses that have been presaged by the forces Young outlines in his subtitle.  . . . Bunk is accordingly deep in its research, profound in its insights, and lyrical in its prose. . . . The book is even more compelling as an argument: that hoaxes, so tangled with stereotype and systemic lies, are inextricable from race, 'a fake thing pretending to be real.'

—Megan Garber, The Atlantic

There’s so much to enjoy and learn from in this encyclopedic anatomy of American imposture and chicanery.

—Michael Dirda, Washington Post

Brilliant . . . that rare thing, a trove of fresh and persuasive insights. . . . Impeccably, even superhumanly erudite. . . . [Young's] subject, a procession of outlandish, inventive, theatrical, and utterly brazen liars, is inherently entertaining.

—Laura Miller, Slate

A wild, incisive, exhilarating tour through Western culture’s sideshows and dark corners. Like a sideshow barker, Young writes with unbridled enthusiasm, a showman’s conviction, and a carny’s canny, telling a story that at times defies belief. And every word of it is true.

—Colin Dickey, Los Angeles Times

A wild ride, start to finish. Kevin Young's sweeping history of the hoax is uncomfortably relevant, drawing out the reasons we as Americans can't seem to stop falling for (and thrilling at) all manner of cons. . . . What sets Young's history apart, beyond his painstaking research and conversational voice, is his focus on the role of race and queerness in these lies. . . . In Bunk, Kevin Young arms readers with a more thorough understanding of the lies they're being sold, and perhaps a strengthened defense against them.

—Arianna Rebolini, BuzzFeed

Encyclopedic, fascinating. . . . An impressive accomplishment.


Young . . . tells his stories beautifully. . . . His readings are impressive not only because he moves so fluidly among apparently incongruous subjects . . . but also because he brings such limber insight to every con he takes on. . . . [A] brilliant and definitive account.

—Clancy Martin, Bookforum

To say Bunk feels more necessary and relevant this week would be to completely disregard the events of the week prior, and the week before that. . . . The book’s density is in its language as well as its breadth, as Young engages with the mind-reeling nature of the subject matter by lyrically connecting irrefutable fact to astounding fictions, illustrating many times over the power hoaxing has to defy logic and reason.

—Melanie McFarland, Salon

Fascinating. . . . A fiercely intelligent account of the lies public figures tell us and the lies we tell ourselves, and it's one of the most important books you'll read all year.

—Kristin Iversen, Nylon

[A] groundbreaking study of spectacles and spectacular falsehoods. . . . This book could scarcely be more timely or useful.

—Kathleen Rooney, Chicago Tribune 

Rich, detailed . . . a book brimming with stories from the past and near-present—each of them with an untruth, to some degree, at its core.

—Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times

Young . . . assumes the daunting task of cataloguing America’s obsession with deception . . . [and] diligently explores how marginalization of 'the other' breathes life into deceit. . . . Bunk is the thrilling fun house at the state fair one wishes to never exit.

—Anjali Enjeti, Atlanta Journal Constitution

Compelling . . . if Kevin Young's Bunk had simply been a chronicle of hoaxes over the years, it would have been gripping reading in its own right. But Young goes much deeper, examining the reasons why large groups of people are drawn to certain varieties of bunk, and what that says about our society. . . . Equal parts enlightening and unnerving.

—Tobias Carroll, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

As jam-packed and timely, as compelling and cautionary as its full title promises. . . . Young’s fluid comfort with poetry and research is on full display in a book that builds a case . . . that the hoax, so American, has a long-standing relationship to race and often gender.

—Lisa Kennedy, Newsday

Young writes with a scholar's nose for research and a cultural critic's insight into what keeps us forever gullible.

—Chris Vognar, Dallas Morning News

Always fascinating. . . . Young takes a sweeping, erudite look at the long and astounding history of his subject in American culture—positing that faking it might indeed be an essential part of that culture.

—Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times

[A] thorough examination of two centuries of hoaxing. . . . Original and illuminating.

—Jane Ciabattari, BBC.com

In Bunk, Young might just have written the most important book this year.

—Nick Ripatrazone, The Millions

Young is a fabulous narrator. Ironic and informed, full of side-bars and anecdotes that only a man who has spent two-decades rummaging in a library will have at his fingertips.

—John Freeman, Lit Hub

Bunk unites a history of 'post-facts and fake news' with sociocultural analysis, rumination, and literary criticism. . . . Clear-eyed and thorough, Young is both scholar and judge.

—Elisa Gonzalez, Guernica

As we adjust to life with a president who plays fast and loose with the truth and whose backstory arouses growing skepticism, this examination of the long and colorful history of hoaxes and cons is most welcome. . . . Compelling and eye- opening.

Booklist, starred review

Young chronicles a distinctly American brand of deception in this history of hoaxers, fabricators, liars, and imposters. . . . [He] astutely declares the hoax a frequent metaphor for a ‘deep-seated cultural wish’ that confirms prejudicial ideas and stereotypes. . . . Young’s remarks on race and his comparison of Trump and Barnum, both of whom gained power from spectacle, in the book’s coda are well worth sifting through.

Publishers Weekly, starred review

Fake news and alternative facts have a long and complex history in American culture. Young, an award-winning poet and director of the New York Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, explores the deep roots of hoaxing in entertainment, literature, journalism, sports, and public life. . . . The final chapter touches on the current “post-fact” world and its rejection of expertise, raising important questions about how we can know the truth. This dense and wide-ranging critique offers a fascinating view of the impact of fraud on truth.

—Library Journal, starred review

[A] vigorous, allusive account. . . . What makes this book a valuable addition to the literature . . . is Young's attention to the racial component. . . . A fascinating, well-researched look at the many ways Americans hoodwink each other, often about race.

—Kirkus Reviews

Bunk is an essential book. It unpacks myriad hoaxes embedded in American history, from spiritualism to the fake news espoused by Donald Trump. As Young explores these hoaxes, he finds that there is darkness at the heart of our country, a malignant seed, that finds expression in fakery. Young writes with humor and wit, and during this moment when alternative facts are sanctioned and willful ignorance is celebrated, this is a necessary read.

— Jesmyn Ward, author of Sing, Unburied, Sing

Brilliant! Kevin Young’s incredible tour of deception reveals an American love affair with lies. The dangerous intersection of commerce and identity is illuminated by his lucid meditation on the long con that we call race.

— Eula Biss, author of On Immunity

There Kevin Young goes again, giving us books we greatly need, cleverly disguised as books we merely want. Unexpectedly essential.

— Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings