For readers of Mordecai Richler, there's a startling moment of recognition at the beginning of Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson's current movie about several human grotesques who live their interlocking lives in the San Fernando Valley. Anderson sets the film's mood with three anecdotes about outlandish deaths, one of them involving a scuba diver. A narrator tells us that a firefighting aircraft, refilling its water tanks, accidentally sucked up a diver from the water and dropped him on a forest, where (as we see on the screen) he was found dead in a treetop, still in scuba gear.
When I saw Magnolia, I guessed that Anderson had read Barney's Version, the 1997 novel by Richler, which has a plot that turns on the same bizarre accident. After Barney Panofsky's best friend vanishes from a lake in the Laurentians, Barney is charged with murder. But no body appears, Barney is acquitted, and the mystery lingers. Thirty-six years later, the friend's bones are found on the crest of Mount Groulx. Barney's son guesses what happened: The man was inadvertently snatched from the lake by a water bomber.
But as it turns out, I was wrong to assume that the anecdote began with Richler. The idea of abduction-by-water-bomber has been known as an urban legend since the 1980s. I learned about it the other day when I called a scholar who has diligently studied this subject, Jan Harold Brunvand, a.k.a. Mr. Urban Legend, a folklorist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Brunvand's seven books on these fables include the recent Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends (Norton) and The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story (University of Illinois Press), due out in April. For his labours he has received mass culture's highest honour: In 1997 he was a question on Jeopardy.
The water bomber story isn't a great favourite among urban legends, like the cement-truck driver who wrecks the Cadillac belonging to his wife's lover by filling it with cement, or the alligators living in the New York sewers. But it has a way of showing up wherever forest fires burn and planes fight them. It circulated in the U.S. and Australia in the late 1980s and recently cropped up again from Mexico to Alaska. It appears every August in France, where it made its way into Peter Mayle's best-seller A Year in Provence; one of the workmen renovating Mayle's famous house reports that a water bomber has dropped a corpse while fighting a fire near Grasse.
According to the people at Canadair, which makes an amphibian water bomber, the story re-emerges all over Europe in forest-fire season. Unlike many urban legends, it isn't even distantly plausible; the plane's water intake equipment is much too small to ingest a human being.
That, of course, won't kill the story. As Brunvand has learned over more than two decades, facts do not stop the progress of a legend. One other truth he has discovered is that the original source of a story is eternally unavailable. He uses an acronym, FOAF (Friend of a Friend), to describe the anonymous and usually non-existent eyewitness.
Too Good to Be True demonstrates the way that urban legends dance back and forth between private and public communication. Usually they are invented and developed in private, but they often slip into novels, films and TV shows. Good Will Hunting, the Matt Damon film, is grounded in a persistent urban legend about a graduate student who comes upon an "unsolvable" math problem on a blackboard and astonishes everyone by solving it.
Having played its part in a movie or novel, the legend typically returns to private conversation for further development. Consider the story of the stolen wallet. Out jogging in Central Park early one morning, a man is bumped by another jogger. He reaches for his wallet, discovers it missing, and in an angry fury races after the thief. He catches him, grabs him and snarls, "Give me that wallet!" The man hands it over. When the angry victim gets home, he discovers his own wallet on the kitchen table. By accident, he has become a mugger.
I heard the story in the 1970s, believed it and repeated it; in that version, the wallet was returned with apologies and the two joggers became friends. Barbara Frum quoted it on As It Happens to an urban legends expert, who informed her it was ancient. Later I learned it had been an incident in Neil Simon's play and film The Prisoner of Second Avenue.
Did Simon originate it? Not at all: Brunvand points out that it's been cropping up for many years: There was a published version in Germany in 1967; it appeared in the U.S. in a Moon Mullins comic strip in 1933; and in 1918 Louise Bryant included it in Six Red Months in Russia. Bryant's story involved a watch and two people on a streetcar, but it was the same story.
Brunvand was led to his remarkable specialty by his frustration with the students in a folklore course. "They always seemed to think that folklore belonged to somebody else, usually in the past, that it was something quaint and outdated."
He began asking them about the stories they were telling each other, and what they reported helped found his collection and create his career. When I spoke to him on Saturday he was deeply involved in his eighth book, a vast encyclopaedia of all the world's urban legends.
It's impossible to follow precisely the life history of an urban legend, but Brunvand knows something of the unconscious and collective system that humanity has worked out in creating this pass-along folk narrative. At the start, typically, people misunderstand something they hear and make false assumptions about it. They forget bits of what they have heard and invent what they are missing. They rationalize certain details to make sense of the whole story -- and finally, of course, they do a little creative lying. Many years ago, the American critic Harold Clurman gave to a book about the theatre a title that could serve as well for a compendium of urban legends: Lies Like Truth.