Much like her “This American Life” counterpart, David Sedaris, writer Sarah Vowell excels at morphing the inane and important into one tight, compelling story. In her latest book, “Assassination Vacation,” recently released in paperback, Vowell takes the minutia and makes a masterful tale.The book follows Vowell’s personal pilgrimage to the sites of three presidential assassinations: those of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley. More than just writing short reflections on the sites themselves, Vowell digs into them, takes detours and explores the details of the events. In the process, she makes the stories, and the players within them, real and all too lifelike. Vowell’s journey leads her, among other places, to the Florida Keys in search of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators, as well as the Oneida Community, a free-love cult that spawned Garfield assassin Charles Giteau (as well as many fine dining accessories as the housewares company Oneida, Ltd.) and many other places.
If you’ve ever heard Vowell’s church-mouse voice on NPR or during an appearance on her good friend Conan O’Brien’s late night show, you’ll have a good feel on the style of “Vacation.” Veering from deadpan humor to poignancy, the book is almost begging to be read aloud. On the audio version, Vowell taps O’Brien and “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart to play the parts of the characters she deftly weaves together.
The beauty of “Vacation” lies in the rabbit trails and detours Vowell takes on her way to the bigger picture. Upon discovering that Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln was present at, or not very far from, each site when the dreaded deed took place, Vowell refers to the first son as “Jinxy McDeath.” She also commends Garfield’s repeated journal entries that reveal he’d rather be reading than leading the nation. A more ambitious work than her past works, “Take the Canoli” and “The Partly Cloudy Patriot,” “Assassination Vacation” is a smart and unique take on American history, politics and personal patriotism.