I totally wanted to adore this book, because I love pseudo-history almost as much as I love pseudo-science, and because two of the assassinated prezs Vowell tours are delightfully obscure (McKinley? Does anyone even know his first name?). I’d heard it was witty and snarky, and I was all thinking ‘Mary Roach takes a road trip’ but no. I mean, Vowell says a lot of words, so some of them are bound to be funny, but she’s way more miss than hit.
Ok, before I get on a roll I can’t stop, the idea is Sarah Vowell touring the assassination locations of, as well as any and every location having to do with, Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Also, she talks about her nephew a lot.
I think my biggest beef is how obsessed with herself Vowell is. I mean, I know that this sort of book is necessarily a bit self-indulgent. But she’s always going on and on about how quirkily morbid and morbidly quirky she is, and will tell stories that serve no purpose except to illustrate that point. If you have to explain how eccentric you are, then you may as well dash back to 1997 and buy one of those ‘Why Be Normal’ tees.
She obviously thinks she’s funny, and has loads of inside jokes with herself. I can imagine how, if you’re Sarah Vowell, this book would slay you. There’s this one richly ironic moment where she’s on a tour and the guide mentions that Lincoln was shot during a sure-fire ‘laugh line’ so that the sound of the audience’s hilarity would muffle the gunshot, but the guide doesn’t quote the line. She asks him to later, and the line’s totally not funny. I mean, you can see how, under the right circumstances and with the right delivery, it might tickle you right, but just all bald-faced like that, it’s a total dud. And that’s kind of how I feel about this book.
And maybe it’s because I just don’t get her. Like, she’ll say something and I’m all, Is she being sarcastic? Because this might be kind of funny if she was being sarcastic, but there’s no *sarcastic emoticon* and even if there was, I doubt she’d be using it as this is a real printed book and not some low-level hack blog. But other authors seem to get by without emoticons. Or she’ll say something like, ‘And then, on Apr. 9, 1865, Appomattox.’ And then go on as though ‘Appomattox’ was totally self-explanatory. This is a prime example of that Huge American Ego which so few Americans have, but which shouts itself from the mountaintops and makes the rest of the world cranky. Because maybe ‘Appomattox’ is obvious to you, but I had to Wikipedia it, and even THEN I got 12 different disambiguations.
So, fine. Sarah Vowell is not my thing. She isn’t making an argument or telling a story, she’s just slinging facts and opinions and non-sequiturs around, and none of them are sticking for me.