By Sarah Vowell
(Simon & Schuster, 272 pages)
For those unfamiliar with Sarah Vowell's dry observations from the waxy fringes of the highbrow in her role as a wispy-voiced contributing editor to NPR's "This American Life," Assassination Vacation may come as a macabre surprise. Always a sort of Wednesday Addams for the Sunday Times set, Vowell's previous forays into the realm of collected essays on the American spirit, Take the Cannoli and The Partly Cloudy Patriot, kept their heads well above six feet under. But Assassination Vacation, a brilliantly titled travelogue through the murder sites of our country's former leaders, digs far deeper into the American psyche, unearthing bizarre miscellany about fractured skulls, spilled brains, and the people and places that continue to house, even display such unsettling items in the idiosyncratic U. S. of A.
Tellingly, Vowell, who is unusually fascinated by the deaths of presidents, is quick in the book's foreword to discount the possibility that some of this obsession might be fuelled by a distaste for all things Shrub.
"Of course talking about the murders of previous presidents is going to open the door to discussing the current president …" she writes. "I like to call him 'the current president' because it's a hopeful phrase, implying that his administration is only temporary." (OK, maybe "discount" is a strong word.) "So if I can summon this much bitterness toward a presidential human being, I can sort of, kind of see how this amount of bile or more, teaming up with disappointment, unemployment, delusions of grandeur and mental illness, could prompt a crazier narcissistic creep to buy one of this country's widely available handguns," she concludes. "Not that I, I repeat, condone that."
Thesis confirmed, Vowell sets out to annoy her friends and family by means of a series of visits to historic sites, graveyards and bed-and-breakfasts, always adopting an outsider's pose, and tirelessly immersing her sometimes flip ruminations in heady historical fact. Disgusting technicalities of antiquated forensic investigation are taken to task with a chipper wit, like when she talks about Lincoln's autopsy, performed by army surgeon Joseph Janvier Woodward:
"Woodward's official report is by the book, so specifically scientific that I had to consult a dictionary to understand it. Parts of Lincoln's face are 'ecchymosed' swollen. His brain is 'pultaceous,' which means, according to the Shorter OED, 'semifluid, pulpy,'" she writes. "It must have been a great relief for Woodward to hide behind words like that, the august Latinate words of his profession 'pultaceous' being as distant as ancient Rome compared to the horrifying here and now of 'pulpy.'"
And as for James Garfield?
"To our forebears, Garfield had eyes that opened and closed, sweat glands and pus, the pus getting an awful lot of play. He had skin and it was moist. Americans knew more about Garfield's breath and blood than they did about their own lungs, their personal hearts," she writes. "How intimate. How embarrassing." Likewise this book: Assassination Vacation is both intimate and embarrassing … and then some. Thick with facts and bloody with merit, it's an excellent addition to Vowell's ouevre of left-field Americana.