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Dead Presidents

Reviewed by Catherine Tumber
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page BW12


By Sarah Vowell

Simon & Schuster. 258 pp. $21

When indie humor, as it might be called, blew into town in the mid-'90s, boomer cultural dominion was finally bested. Credit for that coup is usually given to earlier musical genres -- hip-hop, grunge, techno -- even though they relied heavily, if inventively, on postwar licks and rhythms. Broadly speaking, the indie sensibility not only seeks independence from corporate-controlled media, but reaches beyond boomer mythologies to search the past for promising pop-culture personalities and genres they deem worthy of revival. (Tony Bennett, jazz standards and gothic romanticism come to mind.) Comic books and radio narrative have also been rejuvenated in this way. In the world of humor, compare the puzzled irony of the literary zine McSweeney's and the documentary storytelling featured on public radio's "This American Life" with, say, the heavy-handed satire of "Saturday Night Live," the campy shtick of Bette Midler, or the disaffected, politically inflected wit of Richard Pryor and George Carlin, and there's a different scent in the air. If you don't know what I mean, you could do no better than to turn to radio storyteller and writer Sarah Vowell, who is among indie humor's finest flowers.

Vowell has been described as a cross between Betty Boop and Dorothy Parker, and though Vowell's squeaky voice makes her sound as if she's just taken a hit of helium, Parker's world-weary cosmopolitanism couldn't be further from the modest, almost nerdy querying that marks indie humor -- especially Vowell's. Like her co-conspirators on "This American Life," where she got her start, Vowell takes as her province the innumerable eccentric ways that people manage to squeeze personal and civic meaning out of a world framed by pop culture, with all its predictable uniformity and leavening quirks. In a typical piece she might recall her immersion in Goth culture; in another she might take a stroll through Sinatra's Hoboken or plumb the contrast between American cowboys and Canadian Mounties. Her wit makes these stories funny, of course, but so do her curiosity and ear for vernacular, which yield further revelation and insight.

Vowell's first three titles -- Radio On, Take the Cannoli, and The Partly Cloudy Patriot (which included only four radio stories) -- worked quite well, if unevenly, on the page. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of her latest effort, Assassination Vacation. It is undoubtedly Vowell's most ambitious book. For this project she traveled to various historical sites related to the first three assassinated U.S. presidents -- Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley -- as well as to those that have some connection with the assassins. This exercise allows her to lead readers on a pilgrimage to the monuments and "relics" of American civil religion -- which include everything from McKinley's tomb to the ring containing a lock of Lincoln's hair given to Teddy Roosevelt -- as well as to reveal her essential dorkiness among the kindred souls who look after these things.

Such purposes are rich with comic possibility. Vowell's devotion enables her to capture historical tourism's trappings with perfect clarity. "I am pro-plaque," she tells us. "Once I . . . turned the corner to learn that I had just purchased gum near the former site of Peter Stuyvesant's pear tree. For a split second I had fallen through a trapdoor that dumped me out in New Amsterdam." For all the silliness and distortion to which historical tourism lends itself, it offers transporting moments like these, as well as transcendent ones, as when Vowell speaks movingly of contemplating the grandeur of the Lincoln Memorial in shadow.

Vowell's ambitions get the best of her, however, as she attempts to weigh in on the historical particulars of each assassination, and even refers to her labors as "scholarly" without her usual drollness. Confusing scholarly interpretation with antiquarian curiosity, her essay on Lincoln, which takes up half the book, is bogged down in detail. One also senses that even she, with her abundant mirth, cannot sufficiently detach herself from the tragedy of Lincoln's death to find any humor in it. Her essay on Garfield, by contrast, is by far the best of the three, partly because the average reader knows so little about him but also because she brings to the subject a lighter touch. Viewing Garfield -- "Mr. Loner McBookworm" -- as a proto-slacker who cared principally about leisure, she is charmed by a diary entry in which "he raves about an afternoon spent rearranging his library in a way that reminds me of the druggy glow you can hear in Lou Reed's voice on 'Heroin.' "

Perhaps this essay works best because she has real affection for Garfield and even appreciates the manic ridiculousness of his assassin. It's with such generosity or its opposite -- rather than genuine respect or "scholarly" overreach -- that humor of all stripes hits its stride. •

Catherine Tumber is senior editor of the Boston Phoenix and author of "American Feminism and the Birth of New Age Spirituality: Searching for the Higher Self, 1875-1915."

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