The arcs of Michael Vick’s autobiography Finally Freerival any of the ups-and-downs that fiction or film or the Great American Scream Machine can offer. Born into a rough neighborhood in Newport News, Virginia, Vick grows up in public housing, hears gunshots every night. He witnesses his first dogfight ate the age of eight, becomes enraptured with the canine competitions held on neighborhood streets. While a young teen, a close friend is shot and killed. It is terrible how familiar this story is. But it is familiar.
This part, too: Michael can play football, and that becomes his escape. He loses interest in the dogfights. He benefits from the love of his mother and sisters and especially his grandmother. Sometimes his childhood is straight out of Pleasantville—family pizza nights and Monopoly games. He attends the Solid Rock Church, reads scripture, and sleeps with the bible under his pillow. He has pets: two parakeets, a few gerbils, and a dog named Midnight with a black coat and brown dots above her eyes.
A caring high school football coach molds him. At Virginia Tech, coaches and tutors and teachers, including the noted poet Nikki Giovanni, take care of him. He red-shirts his freshmen year, and in his second comes within one quarter of winning a national championship. After a second strong season in which he’s held back by injuries near the end, Vick hits the jackpot and makes history, becoming the first black quarterback ever picked first in the NFL draft. The young man whose mother worked at a Super Kmart receives a $3 million signing bonus.
About this time, from the flood tide of people wanting to be his friend, an old Newport News buddy shows up, a man who is now much deeper into an organized, big-money form of dogfighting. Vick rekindles his love of the dark pastime, investing in his own kennel and learning the nuances of picking dogs, traveling back to Virginia from Atlanta every week during the season. "I may have become more dedicated to the deep study of dogs than I was to my Falcons playbook," Vick writes. "I became better at reading dogs than reading defenses."
Despite this distraction, and a wild lifestyle, Vick excels as the Falcons quarterback in his second season, leading the team to the playoffs and beating Brett Favre and Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on the way to the NFC Championship game.
But troubles begin to emerge during his Falcons years. He becomes estranged from the mother of his son and at times does not know the whereabouts of his child. He becomes entangled in a contentious custody dispute.
After a few years, none as successful in football as the 2003 season, the dogfighting gig is up. Federal investigators arrest several of his partners, and set their sights on him. As the end nears, he and his partners kill many dogs. They did not, he says despite claims in the indictment, kill dogs with shovels, but they did kill many dogs, although he doesn’t say how. "We had gone out and gotten rid of a lot of dogs. It’s a day I would like to forget. But I can’t. It will always haunt me."
After his arrest, Vick denies involvement and lies to everyone: His defense attorney, investigators, prosecutors, his coaches, the Falcons owner, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Ultimately, though, the truth catches up with him, and does not set him free. Vick recants in the face of irrefutable evidence, pleads guilty, and is sentenced to 23 months in prison. He serves 18. You know this part, too.
In his disgrace, Vick is deserted by blue-chip endorsers such as Nike and Coca-Cola and—this bit is a murky whorl of unnamed financial advisors, one of whom also wound up in jail—and goes bankrupt. His grandmother dies, and he blames himself for her death. ("I’m still convinced that my grandmother’s early departure from this earth is because of me—because of how heartbroken she was over my situation," he writes. "The day I told her I was going to training camp," in one last lie, he does not tell her he was going to prison, "that was the last time I saw her." He leaves behind the mother of his second and third children, the oldest of whom was two and the youngest a one-month-old, whose infancy he would miss. "Your sin doesn’t just hurt you," he writes. "It hurts others."
The rest is very recent, still-fraught history: Vick reflects, repents, reads the bible, meets with Tony Dungy. He reads 27,000 letters from fans, only six of which, he says, qualified as hate mail. He works construction upon his release, catches on with the Eagles, spends a season on the bench and then Wally Pipps a concussed Kevin Kolb. Kolb got a measure of revenge on Sunday by outplaying Vick and leading the Cardinals to a lopsided win, but Vick has, for the most part, been on a steady upward trajectory since supplanting his predecesor. In 2010, Vick receives more votes for the Pro Bowl than any other NFL player and wins a $100 million contract from the Eagles, $35.5 million of that guaranteed.
But more importantly, he says, he has become a new man, committed to his three children, and the mother of his two daughters, now his wife. Vick writes that he no longer lies, and no longer cares just for himself. The old Michael Vick is gone, the new one committed to football and family and God is here. It's an inspiring story, when taken at face value. But where in Vick's story can readers and fans begin to trust a man who was admits that he stopped lying only a few years ago? When the confessed pathological liar tells us he is no longer lying, what do we believe?
The unreliable narrator is one of the most captivating, slippery voices in literature—it's a tactic as old as storytelling, and one that has lost none of its power. It's still a challenge to figure out where we stand with narrators who lie or manipulate the truth of their stories to benefit themselves a la Humbert Humbert or one who naïvely reveals more to the reader than he comprehends himself, as Holden Caufield does. This latter type is often young, and may think he’s telling the truth, but the reader sees the whole picture more clearly than the storyteller. It builds a sort of tension into the story that exists above the level of the story itself. That tension is palpable in Finally Free, and at times defines it—for all the incident in Vick's story, the central challenge of the book, for readers, is determining how much salt to apply to Vick's narrative. Or, more pointedly, trying to figure out when he is bullshitting us, and when he was simply revealing himself as naïve in the extreme.
It's not a simple conflict to resolve, and I don't have an answer. Is Vick as shifty and gifted a bluffer as he is a broken-field runner, or as earnest as he appears in his touching dedication to his grandmother or his believable, deeply felt telling of his harrowing childhood? There are instances when Vick, or one of his ghostwriters, gets carried away—his comparison of himself to Icarus would be one of these. But generally his voice is straightforward, plainspoken, occasionally even childlike in its innocence and directness. He's telling us his story, and he's telling us the version of it that he wants us to read.
Vick is easy to believe when he confesses his misdeeds without qualification or excuse and takes responsibility for his actions. "I was ashamed," he writes of the moment when his 5-year-old son burst into tears after seeing a story on TV about him going to prison. "It was all my fault." At another point he said his behavior made him a "bad leader" off the field for the Falcons. He admits to leading a double life, saying, "I had become a manipulator and a master illusionist."
I believe him when he describes the pain he felt in leaving the mother of his two girls, and his children when he went to prison. I believe how difficult for him it must have been to explain his sentence to his son. I believe the agony he endured when his grandmother died. And I want to believe him that his work with the Humane Society is sincere, that he is opposed to the violence to dogs that he once perpetrated on a major scale. But he is not always forthcoming with everything he knows.
An unreliable narrator also can reveal his deceptions by what he doesn’t say. Vick provides sketchy details on his dogfighting operation and its demise, saying only that he had seen other dog owners shoot losing dogs in the head immediately after a fight. He does not say how he and associates killed dogs other than to deny the allegation about those shovels – he doesn’t address the indictment that accused him and partners of "hanging, drowning, and slamming at least one dog’s body to the ground."
Neither are there any details of his "drinking and partying" years, nor exploration of his drug use except a passing mention that he tested positive for marijuana and that he had hoped to get into the prison system drug treatment program in hopes of reducing his time served. There’s no mention of charges that he gave a woman in Atlanta herpes, and had himself tested under the alias Ron Mexico. It's his story and his book, of course, and Vick is entitled to come as clean as he wants. But his assertion that, "a lot of my poor decisions and subsequent mistakes can be attributed mostly to two things: my weak resolve in telling people no, and the people I chose to be associated with" sounds like an excuse, a way to pass the blame.
There's no foolproof test to determine if a narrator is lying or unintentionally distorting. Every story is different, every narrator is different. If Finally Free is especially confounding this way, though, it's perhaps because it is a 32-year-old's autobiography and as such inherently incomplete. The only measure of whether Vick is telling us the truth will be time. He will tell us, and show us, what kind of narrator—and what kind of person—he truly is, and whether his new relationship to telling the truth will last. Whether he is telling us the truth or slipping back into his old habits, the storyteller is still talking, and the story is not finished.