Before writing this review of Eugene Marten’s Layman’s Report, I sat down to watch Errol Morris’ documentary that focused on the same subject, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., for the first time in about eight years. Perhaps because I had read Layman’s Report, I was more struck after this viewing by Morris’ signature method of crafting his films, which is to let the subjects reveal themselves. In the documentary, Leuchter comes off as deluded, a man who lets himself be convinced of his own expertise by people who base their lives on denial, specifically Holocaust denial. Mr. Death is a remarkable, eerie, and frustrating documentary, but Morris’ method, which works so well in his other films because it establishes a seemingly objective distance between filmmaker and subject, betrays itself in some ways by the subject that it chooses. In an interview at the Museum of Modern Art in 1999, Morris states:
Loving and admiring Fred are two very different things. When I say I love Fred, I love the idea of Fred; I am fascinated by Fred. He has to be the most ingenuous person I have ever come across. Well, either ingenuous or absolutely insane.
For many, many years I have been in search of what I would call the absolutely clueless narrator, the narrator who has absolutely no perspective about himself, whatsoever.
You’ve all heard about the examined life. Here’s an example of a life, which has not been examined at all. That’s right, the totally unexamined life.
One can almost detect, especially in the last sentence above, an old-timey freakshow proprietor revealing his most treasured exhibit. “Ladies and gentleman, I present to you the Incredible Completely Deluded Man!” In my mind, it’s this attitude from Morris that causes the documentary to falter, not because I disagree with the message (I don’t), but because Morris uncharacteristically seemed to have come to his conclusions before he even asked his first question.
Layman’s Report is a fictionalized retelling of the life of Fred Leuchter, Jr., and in many ways a more uncomfortable, more objective look at this troubled (and troubling) man. Before gaining infamy by his involvement in the Ernst Zundel trial and for writing his Leuchter Report, which stated that the gas chambers in Auschwitz and Birkenau could not possibly have been used for executions, Leuchter found financial success in the state prison circuit in the 1980s by building and selling to state prisons more efficient, and more “humane” (according to Leuchter), machines for executions.
This aspect of Leuchter’s life is briefly covered in Mr. Death, and when Morris lets Leuchter describe his intentions and reasons for entering this sort of work, Leuchter proclaims that he was searching for a more humane way to execute people, a disturbing sentiment because it makes complete sense and at the same time ignores the inherent horror of killing a person.
Layman’s Report digs much deeper into Leuchter’s (known only as “Fred” in the novel) motivations by actually giving these moments scenes, giving them dialogue, fleshing them out as one decision after another. Marten portrays Fred as a man who truly enjoys his work and fully respects, if not the outcomes of his inventions, then at least their intended purposes. When building an electric chair, Marten describes the process with a sensuous awe, in his characteristic muscularly poetic language: “White oak, kiln-dried. Who cared what it looked like? They might. He’d done his homework, taken Polaroids. Ran his hands over boards in the lumberyard, feeling for flaws. The smoothness of it, the muscle. Whorls in the pattern like small galaxies of grain.”
Marten’s main gift as a writer, for me, is that he gives us main characters that repel us and fascinate us, and makes us question and examine why we have these reactions. Fred is the most complicated (and certainly the least pulpy) of Marten’s protagonists, not only because he is based off a real person who has some level of historical notoriety, but also because he has higher aspirations for himself, a sentiment that makes Fred more fully human. We respect Fred as a character much more in the novel than we do as a character in the documentary. We respect the fictionalized Fred more because, while he has the same flaws and delusions as the man in the documentary, there is a level of empathy that Marten achieves that Morris, seemingly from the outset, refused to even consider.
The making of the documentary, too, features in the novel, and the novel’s most heartbreaking scene comes when Fred has to sneak into the rafters of a theater at Sundance to see the premiere of the movie about him. Watching the audience watch the film, Fred “looked himself in the eye, but it was their mirror, not his … Only lies are larger than life.” Marten creates, in Fred’s reaction here, an incredible refutation to Morris’ motivations for Mr. Death, because what good is examining the unexamined life if the purpose is not to help that life grow, but to ridicule and judge? Are we, in many ways, worse than Leuchter, who at least claims to believe in finding a more humane way?
Of course I am not claiming that Marten is sympathizing with a Holocaust denier. But he is digging deeper than Morris did to find out who this man is and why he fell in with the crowd that he did, not just that he openly accepted the invitation that the cult of Holocaust denial extended to him, but why he accepted it.
Fans of Marten’s novels should absolutely read Layman’s Report. It is less overtly graphic than his previous novels, less overtly violent and wallowing in filth, but it maintains and elevates Marten’s hardboiled approach to characters that are lost and complicated and dismantled by their own dark obsessions and their dysfunctional pursuits of love, wherever that may come from.
Layman’s Report, by Eugene Marten. Westland, Michigan: Dzanc Books. 300 pages. $15.00, paper.
Michael Goroff lives in Los Angeles, California. He is a graduate of the Northeast Ohio MFA program.