When I read How to Write Funny last year, I was disappointed to find that many of the writers who are considered geniuses of comedy aren’t very funny to me.
So I perused all the books on my shelves and thought about who I consider funny. I like cerebral humor. I like wry, twisted observation.
I came up with two authors: Anne Lamott (see my review of Bird by Bird), and Sarah Vowell.
If you’re not familiar with Vowell, she was a popular contributor to This American Life on NPR, and the author of many commentaries on American history and culture, and the voice of Violet in the animated movie The Incredibles. I saw her speak in person at a writers conference many years ago.
Assassination Vacation is a cerebral and wry account of a marathon pilgrimage Vowell took to various sites connected with the murders of presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, accompanied on various legs by a friend, her sister Amy, and/or her (then three-year-old) nephew Owen.
How could that possibly be funny?
Vowell makes it so. Let’s eavesdrop on a conversation in the book:
Bennet asked, “You know that Kevin Bacon game?”
“The one where he can be connected to every other movie star?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. Assassinations are your Kevin Bacon. No matter what we’re talking about, you will always bring the conversation back to a president getting shot.”
He was right…Once I knew my dead presidents and I had become insufferable, I started to censor myself. There were a lot of get-togethers with friends where I didn’t hear half of what was being said because I was sitting there, silently chiding myself, Don’t bring up McKinley. Don’t bring up McKinley.
Oh. I almost recognize myself in that exchange.
Vowell collects interesting but random facts and shares them with us. For example, “Mary Surratt’s D.C. boardinghouse, where John Wilkes Booth gathered his co-conspirators to plot Lincoln’s death, is now a Chinese restaurant called Wok & Roll.”
Here is how Vowell describes the tour guide who leads her through the Oneida Community, a former cult commune in New York, and briefly the home of Charles J. Guiteau, the assassin of James Garfield:
…Joe Valesky, a retired Oneida native who taught high school American history for thirty-six years, gives me a guided tour. Someday, I hope to be just like him. There are people who look forward to spending their sunset years in the sunshine; it is my own retirement dream to await my death indoors, dragging strangers up dusty staircases while coughing up one of the must thrilling phrases in the English language: “It was on this spot…” My fantasy is to one day become a docent.
Did I mention I love nerds, being one myself?
Vowell is annoyed when while trying to find the place where a particular event happened, there is no marker:
I am pro-plaque. New York is lousy with them, and I love how spotting a plaque can jazz up even the most mundane errand. Once I stepped out of a deli on Third Avenue and turned the corner to learn I had just purchased gum near the site of Peter Stuyvesant’s pear tree. For a split second I had fallen through a trapdoor that dumped me out in New Amsterdam, where in 1647 the peg-legged Dutch governor planted a tree he brought over from Holland; until a fatal wagon accident, it bore fruit for more than two hundred years. To me, every plaque, no matter what words are inscribed on it, says the same magic informative thing: Something happened! The gum cost a dollar, but the story was free.
And her writing is so picturesque: “…the McKinley National Monument in Canton is a domed edifice on top of a hill. It’s a gray granite nipple on a fresh green breast of grass.” Tell me you didn’t smile when you read that.
Sarah Vowell loves history, and she has the knack of making it interesting to those who might rather stick needles in their eyes than read about past tragedies. You may not think a book about presidential murders could be entertaining or actually funny, but Assassination Vacation is.
What about you? Do you like history? Have you read anything by Sarah Vowell or heard her speak? Share your opinions and insights in the comments below.