Books — Assassination Vacation
Assassination Vacation

By Amy Diaz

The voice of Violet

Sarah Vowell pens history of an assassination 

Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell, Simon & Schuster, 2005, 258 pages.

You know you’ve achieved a certain level of nerd fame when the power of your name can get a book published on the subject of President James Garfield’s assassin.

Garfield, after all, is no Kennedy. Even if you could cook up a conspiracy theory about Garfield’s death, who would care?

Sarah Vowell, the consiglieri to This American Life and voice of Violet on The Incredibles, is more than just your average hipster commentator on pop culture and current events. She has a specific love of history that elevates her beyond clever jokes and ironic references into the realm of the genuinely knowledgable. Vowell has even gone so far beyond the normal introductory-survey-on-everything knowledge required to truly hang with the geeks of the NPR world that she has whole bookshelves devoted not just to the American history she loves so dearly but to her particular fascination with presidential assasins. She is a nerd among geeks. She symbolicly pushes her glasses back up the bridge of her nose and raises her hand to give the answer to obscure history trivia questions (Who was Dr. Mudd? Where did Charlie Guiteau spend his formative years? What happened at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901?). But her historical gossip doesn’t come from some showy need to know everything. Vowell is truly fascinated by her subjects and shares the enthusiasm of her fascination with every “on this spot in 18somethingorother.”

Though Garfield’s death at the hand of big-egoed loon Guiteau comes at the middle of Assasination Vacation, it is not the book’s focus, nor really are the deaths-by-assasination of Presidents McKinley or even Lincoln. Instead, the book ultimately looks at the ego and delusion required to convince a person to kill someone with the ego and delusion required to be president. Vowell explains her fascination with the subject of giant ego destroying giant ego thusly: “If I can summon this much bitterness toward a presidential human being [referring to George W. Bush], 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.”

More than even this stated purpose, Vowell seems to have an unconscious interest in the role that blind, stupid fate plays in an otherwise checked-and-balanced democratic society. The absence of an inhereted throne or belief in the divine rights of a person who, like any person, could get sick, or depressed or just go crazy would seem to suggest our country would be less likely to have its adminstration fall to chance. We know what we’re getting, theoretically at least, when we elect someone. And we elect and re-elect leaders with regular enough frequency that they shouldn’t be able to catch us by surprise with a personality or mental health change. Yet even under this kind of government, fate takes a hand. A nutter is born who, as Vowell said, is molded by enough mental illness and life-disappointment that he thwarts the popular vote and changes the course of the country.

Vowell muses on these ideas, without necessarily coming to any great earthshattering conclusions, while also making giddy bookworm fun of trips to ancestral homes, birth and death places, librarys, museums and other dust covered, docent-tended pilgramage points for fans of A&E’s Biography. It’s her nerdy joy, blended with her politely laser-sharp voice that makes Assasination Vacation such a trip to read.

- Michelle Saturley

2005 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH