Thursday, March 03, 2005

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

Ever since it was first announced by Disney, much has been written about the town of Celebration. And much of that writing is fiction, even when it is purported to be "fact."

A couple of years ago, there was a story about our fair town in Playboy magazine. It was a fictionalized account, and at least it was labeled as such. The story, "Jubilation," was written by T. Coraghessan Boyle, best known for the novel, "The Road to Wellville." His fictionalized biography of Kellogg's Conflakes inventor Dr. John Harvey Kellogg is better known as a movie than as a book. The film adaptation had lots of star power, including Anthony Hopkins as the good doctor; Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda as William and Eleanor Lightbody, a wealthy young couple who comes for treatment to Kellogg's trendy "sanitarium" (a turn-of-the-century version of celebrities going to the Betty Ford Clinic); and John Cusack as Charles Ossining, who dreams of striking it rich on the coat-tails of the health food industry.

But the best role is arguably Dana Carvey's portrayal of George Kellog, the doctor's rebellious adopted son. In the movie, as in real life, Dr. Kellogg adopted somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 children. Most are grateful, but not little Georgie, who was rescued from squalor as he crouched next to the dead body of his prostitute mother. As a boy, he defies the doctor at every turn; as a man, he lives on the streets and only shows up at the "San" (the affectionate name for Kellogg's clinic) to shake his dad down for booze money.

The movie, like the book, is loaded with dark humor, but somehow it comes across much better on the big screen than on the printed page. Usually I prefer books to movies; one big exception is Stephen King's "The Shawshank Redemption." Both movie and book are great, but the film version has a much more satisfying component to its ending. The print version is more realistic, but sometimes it feels so good to see the "bad guy" get what's coming to him.

Similarly, I find the outcome of Dr. Kellogg's relationship with his son to be much more heartening in the film. The doctor seems almost sinister in the novel; on screen, he comes across as more on the eccentric side rather than calculating like his counterpart in print.

Just as Boyle's book is based very, very loosely on the true store of Dr. Kellogg, "Jubliation" is based on the version of Celebration that is bantered about in the popular media rather than any sort of reality.

In reading the story, I doubt that he ever even bothered to set foot in our town. It echoes all the usual half-truths, Truman Show/Stepford innuendos, and silly rumors about Nazi-esque covenants and enforcement.

In reality, you can see that the "white curtains only" retriction is B.S. simply by driving around town. True, I've never personally seen Shocking Pink, Cobalt Surprise, or Screaming Yellow Zonkers as a curtain or blind color, but there are plenty of wood tones and other sensible non-white window treatments. For the non-conformists, I've even seen some stained glass panels. I have those, too, but mine are mounted outside of the blinds. That's not due to a conformist mindset or fear of the "Window Police." It's for more practice reasons; in our old home, when my husband mounted some stained glass between the window shade and pane, bolting it into the window frame, he indavertently managed to crack the window.

I find the variety of home colors to be quite fascinating too. Up until now, my "favorites" have been Light Turquoise and Bright Mustard, but a new one will be cropping up as I type this. As we drove down the street this morning, we noticed that a massive Victorian mansion that is currently under construction was being painted Pale Violet. When it's done, it will definitely be a standout on a road dominated by whites, browns, and bricks.

In "Jubilation," a magenta race car manages to create all sorts of trauma. Puh-leese! No other vehicle could ever has as much character, or cause as much conflict in town, as Skippy, the trusty, rusty old Dodge Dart that used to greet visitors as they drove over the entrance bridge. Although many would have liked to see "him" gone, Skippy skirted the restrictions by remaining legally plated and tagged and by moving around just enough to show that he could move.

Eventually, either a Skippy foe or a random vandal perpetrated some cruel acts of violence on the poor car, slashing the tires and stealing the license plate. Not long after, the owners moved and took the old Dart with them. This is the Cliff Notes version of the "Skippy Saga," but the whole true story is much more amusing and creative than anything in Boyle's tome.

He could also have added the fact that a huge motor home was parked out in front of one of the largest, fanciest (some might say "gaudiest") homes in town for a length far exceeding what the covenants allow last year. I saw it frequently, since it was on the main street leading to my home. Each day as I drove by, I hoped that Randy Quaid might greet me, cheerfully yelling, "The shitter's full!" as he brandished a hose in the sewer, but no such luck. Eventually, the motor home disappeared.

Boyle rehashes the old, tired stories of the house lottery and the involvement of the Walt Disney Company and its icon, Mickey Mouse. In "Jubilation," they have morphed into Gulpy Gator and the Contash Corporation. He also dredges up general Florida stereotypes by having a little boy snatched out of a boat on the dowtown lake and devoured by a hungry gator.

Had he done some real research, he would have found a much more interesting "lake tidbit." In another Celebration lake (actually more of a retention pond), five stolen cars have been fished out. Even stranger, so have several dead people, including a family from Massachusetts that had been missing for two months. Another family, from the U.K., almost became victims of the "Killer Lake" but managed to abandon, car before sinking into its murky, deadly depths.

Stranger still, the father of one of the victims apparently sued the engineering firm that built the pond and the town of Celebration for negligence. The negligent bastards failed to to protect his intoxicated daughter from speeding, running a stop sign, and failing to recognize the body of water in front of her or the fact that driving into it would not be a good idea. I haven't been able to discover whether the suit went through or the ultimate disposition of the case. I do know that these days you'd have to make a concerted effort to drive past a top light (as opposed to the old stop signs), over a curb and through a massive sign before joining the previous victims of the deadly waters. How much more exciting than a run-of-the-mill gator chomping!

Last but not least is the hurricane part of the story. In "Jubilation," the town is pretty much leveled by a massive hurricane. Back when I first read it in 2003, I shared the usual sentiment: "They don't come this far inland." In just one year's time I would learn to take the cliche "truth is stranger than fiction" to heart as we got struck by not one, but three hurricanes within mere weeks of each other.

Thankfully, in Celebration most of the damage was limited to the trees (and to the unfortunately homes and garages on which they toppled). But all you had to do was drive around Kissimmee and Poinciana to see just how lucky we had been; the blue-tarped roofs and tumbling-down houses showed just how vicious and merciless the storms were. We could easily have shared the same fate as the fictional "Jubilation" if it weren't for the direction of the storms and the strict post-Hurricane Andrew building code that dictates protective measures in new construction.

I could go on and on with tales of the "real" Celebration that would make "Jubilation" even more of a snoozer, but alas, other responsibilities beckon. Besides, I doubt that more than a handful of people have ever read Boyle's story anyway. No matter what the guys say, "Playboy" and "reading the articles" are not two phrases that go hand-in-hand.

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