Believe it or not, Neal Thompson’s biography of Robert Ripley, A Curious Man did not grab my attention as I had hoped. Perhaps the reason for that is because the subject is prickly, and at times, quite bizarre in his behaviour. Why justify spending over 350 pages with such a bristly character?
I kept waiting for the moment when he would change from being LeRoy Ripley to the Robert Ripley, (names and identity are common themes in this meticulously researched biography, as is the matter of some very prominent front teeth), and then it became clear to me. Part of the showmanship demanded of Robert Ripley, travelling the world, his frequent romances, alcoholism, and seeming to take the reins from P.T. Barnum, is that the shy, bucktooth kid never disappeared.
Ripley seems to compensate for his appearance, his poor upbringing, and his diverse participation in activities like boxing and cartooning to find his niche, to get away from Santa Rosa, but, believe it or not, despite his frequent globe-hopping, he could not run away from himself. Ripley remained a nervous, inward, pugilistic, and at times, culturally insensitive rube, and Thompson’s gift is offering a profound insight into this Curious personality, (the double meaning in the title is quite clever), without demoralizing his often difficult subject.
In fact, the greatest point of contention seems to be how Robert Ripley came across the formula that would provide him the success that he sought. How did Ripley come up with the idea for “Believe it or Not?” I will not spoil it, but certainly, Thompson points out that there are many ways to interpret this happy accident, and, perhaps for the only time in this careful biography, leaves it to the reader to decide which version of this reality he or she wants to believe in, or not.
This book contains some brief interludes in the style of Ripley’s cartoon, providing colorful facts about some of the amazing characters with whom Ripley interacts. Though these anecdotes first were what held my attention , my amazement of Thompson’s take on Ripley’s life sustained my interest, and kept me curious, man.