Thursday, November 05, 2009

Magnificent! Impeccable! Sublime!

"The Remarkable Millard Fillmore" has been sitting on my bookshelf for a LONG time.  It's one of those books that I got during a period of heavy library reading that didn't subside until after I'd forgotten that I had received a new book.  It wasn't until a rare dry spell when I was looking around for something new to read that I realized I had never gotten around to opening it, and couldn't even remember when I had received it.

Anyways.  It's a strange, funny little book.  It isn't really like anything else out there, though I suppose you could arrive there by triangulating from Mo Rocca's "All the President's Pets," Dave Barry's "Dave Barry Slept Here," and Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire."  It's a surprisingly layered humor book... not really a satire, not really a put-on, a bit of both but not essentially either.

The main framing device is this: the "author" is a frustrated, scorned historian.  Excluded from the clubby surroundings of the Presidential Biographers association, he doggedly pursues a solitary devotion for Millard Fillmore while assaulted by the traditionalist supporters of Lincoln, Washington, Roosevelt, and other giants.  Eventually, a Nigerian on the Internet sells him the just-discovered lost journals of President Fillmore, which contain shocking information that reveal that Fillmore really was the best president ever.  This book, then, is the author's definitive biography, based heavily upon those supposed primary sources.

Okay, got that?  We are reading:
* A book
* With a fictional author
* Who is an unreliable narrator
* Who is working from invented sources
* Which in turn were written by a Nigerian scammer

Even that doesn't fully capture it, though.  In addition to being unreliable, the narrator isn't too bright.  The inner-inner-inner joke is that the journals actually reinforce the notion that Fillmore was an idiot, but the author is too starry-eyed and devoted to recognize this.  Instead, every (fictional) scene is interpreted by the author to place Fillmore in an absurdly positive light.

After setting that up, the author has free license to do WHATEVER HE WANTS, and he does so freely.  The result is a meandering, entertaining story that dips in and out of 19th century American politics and culture, but largely focuses on stuff like Masonic conspiracies, Presidential assassinations, bullying in the Senate, dirt-farming, sumo wrestling, rubber bands... you get the idea.  Any topic is fair game, the more half-baked the better.

Like most good historical humor books, the best stuff is often found in the footnotes.  The author can go on fun tangents about random topics, either inventing from whole cloth or twisting established facts.  Also like most books in this vein, it's funnier the more you know about the source material.  I particularly enjoyed the incidents that I'm familiar with, like Commodore Perry's voyage and Andrew Jackson's campaigning.  I'm not as well versed on the Indian wars, so I didn't get as much out of those sections.

In an interesting touch, the book also contains a set of endnotes, seemingly written tongue-in-cheek by the actual author rather than by the invented author.  (Ahh, I love modernism!  It has truly infected even our most farcial endeavors.)  The end notes briefly discuss the "real" historic facts that underly the various scenes in this book, pointing out which particular outrageous things were based in fact, and which "cannot be independently verified."

Most of the humor is cerebral, but there's an appealing strain of slapstick as well.  One of my favorite running jokes was that all of the American financial crises are blamed on Fillmore.  This is yet another case where the authorial voice gets tricky and interesting.  Typically, the narrator will describe some scrape that Fillmore gets into in New York City, which typically ends with Fillmore being chased by a crowd or an assassin.  Then the narrator will start a new paragraph with a line like, "It's unfortunate that Fillmore was so harassed at this time, because he missed out on one of the great financial crises.  At the precise time that Fillmore's journals describe him being chased through Manhattan, an overweight and disheveled man was observed bursting onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.  Panting for breath, he shouted, 'The French are attacking!  All is lost!  Sell, sell!' and then ran out.  After he exited, a brief moment of silence hung over the floor.  Then, hundreds of sheets of paper flew into the air as a general panic fell over the room.  This incident resulted in the Panic of 18XX, which led to a depression of five years.  If only Fillmore had been present, his calmness and brilliance could have saved the nation from those difficult times."  Again, the joke is that the "author" has received information implying that Fillmore is an even WORSE president than we already thought, and he draws the opposite conclusion.

I can't say that this is an awesome book, but it is a good one.  I thought that it got better as it went along; I'm not sure if this is because it actually gets funnier, or if it's more that I started to put myself in the right mental position to appreciate it.  In either case, by the time Fillmore enters public life and meets Edgar Allen Poe, I started really digging the book.

Incidentally, if you read the book, don't skip the index.  In fact, if you only read one part of the book, you should read the index.  It includes, for example, an entry for Ron Chernow, with nested entries including "Who the hell was Alexander Hamilton, anyways" and "We both know that awards don't mean anything."

This is definitely a niche book, and thoroughly odd, but worth checking out if it's your thing.  I'll keep my eyes peeled for a sequel; I think something like "Richard Nixon: Least Criminal President Ever" would be a fun read.

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