By James Whorton Jr.
(Free Press, 288 pp., $23)
Wharton reads 6 p.m. Feb. 2 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers
Frankland is what the 17th president of the United States wanted to name a new territory comprised of parts of North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia and Tennessee. It remains unclear to historians why he so favored the idea of carving out a new state or why he desired to call it Frankland. One of the more hapless chief executives in U.S. history, Andrew Johnson is better remembered as having been the first, and, until recently, only, president to be impeached. Elevated from vice president to commander in chief after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Johnson suffered a remarkable inability to get things done. Outwitted and bullied by the Radical Republicans, the Jacksonian Democrat failed time and again to exert his will successfully. To put Johnson's ineffectiveness in perspective, consider this: in over a century of U.S. politics before 1865, Congress had never once overridden a presidential veto concerning any substantive issue. Of Johnson's 29 vetoes, Congress overrode 15. Frankland never had a chance.
It is no surprise, then, that Johnson serves as the research subject for the equally hapless but forthright John Tolley, the narrator of James Whorton's hilarious new novel, Frankland. An aspiring historian, Tolley has labored six years in Galena, Ohio, as the underpaid managing editor of an obscure journal, Civil War Days, where the editor "was a friend to the amateur historian, whose substandard product he received with indulgence and often relied on to cheaply fill up the pages of our magazine." Wanting to better himself, Tolley sets out for New York to find work with a more prestigious publication. He ends up in Brooklyn, working the spit-roaster at a Greek restaurant: "I spent long days watching the lamb turn, thinking and planning, trying to profit. I thought of Andrew Johnson, who as a young tailor in Greenville had hired a man to read to him from the newspaper as he sewed. I mentioned the idea to my employer, and the next day he brought in his wife to read aloud from a Greek newspaper, in Greek."
Spit-roaster by day, Tolley spends his evenings researching everything Johnsonian in the New York City Public Library, where one fortuitous evening he discovers an obscure reference to "the sewn folio in the purple cover." The secret folio presumably contains damaging information about Johnson's presidency, information so damaging, in fact, that the ex-president's heirs have kept the folio hidden for over a hundred years. Tolley, desperate to make a name for himself as a historian, immediately packs all his belongings into his ragged Plymouth Duster and heads south, to Johnson territory in East Tennessee. It is there, he is convinced, that he will find the folio. "I was twenty-eight years old," he says. "The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., had won a Pulitzer Prize by this age. The thought depressed me, and I had to remind myself that Professor Schlesinger had the benefit of some early advantages that I lacked, in addition to his no doubt considerable native intelligence. We all have to do what we can with the tools we are given."
Unfortunately for Tolley but fortunately for the reader, one tool the narrator lacks is the ability to communicate naturally with human beings. Tolley is decidedly not a people person; his sense of the world comes from history texts, most of them focused on the 19th century. As a result, his speech is anachronistically formal, and his encounters with living, breathing people are fraught with humorous miscommunication. Remembering his almost-girlfriend back in Ohio, he remarks: "The color of her eyes escaped me now, but I could see her marginalia as though it were there in front of me. Excellent point, this. Specious reasoning. Specious. That had been a form of courtship, perhaps. Possibly I had been guilty of pretending not to understand. Twice a week for four years I had rapped on her screen door, causing her cockatiel to shriek and scatter its seed."
In Tennessee, Whorton ratchets up the plot and adds a host of wildly peculiar characters to play off his narrator's own deadpan strangeness. At the beginning of his search for Johnson's folio, Tolley's Duster breaks down in a little town called Pantherville, where he is quickly drawn into a complex web of subplots involving the state lottery, cockfighting and the U.S. Postal Service. While all this interweaving is expertly drafted, the real treat here is Whorton's gloriously odd cast of characters. Most are from Pantherville itself, including a firefighter who can't stop setting fires, a postal clerk who doubles as a member of the state legislature, and a mail carrier who may or may not be stealing mail. Also turning up are a pushy television producer from New York City by way of Arkansas, and a Vanderbilt history professor straight out of Dickens. What ensues, of course, is a comedy of errors, and the reader is never quite sure who is doing what to whom.
Frankland is Whorton's second novel. His first, the humorous and tender Approximately Heaven (Free Press, 2004), centered on Don Wendell Brush, an unemployed electrician short on ambition and smarts. While dissimilar on the surface, Brush and Tolley share a profound similarity: both are emotional outsiders trying to fit into a world they don't completely understand. After two novels, Whorton has mastered the comic sensibility of such a state without sacrificing the dignity of his characters. His writing remains compassionate even as his creations stumble comically and most unheroically along. Whorton's books are funny, and his writing gives a damn.
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