Listening to Assassination Vacation is like taking a road trip with your strangest friend. Well, Sarah Vowell is on a road trip- and is unabashedly strange- but having her narrate the journey to you is a little cozy, a little crazy, a little creepy- and a LOT of fun. Her morbid fascination with presidential assassins (both would-be and verified) and the zeal for putting friends and relatives into uncomfortable situations is a hoot, and the audio experience feels like gossiping with your own partner-in-crime. She also has a delightful young nephew in tow, a three-year-old who is really into decapitation and skeletons. A kid after my own heart. The creepy kid adds to the overall journey, as Vowell is on a pilgrimage of sorts; she sets out on a cross-country tour of sites associated with presidential assassinations.
Vowell sets out on her journey during a period of political unrest in the US. She, like a good many people, is disappointed and alarmed by the current administration. She uses “current” frequently; not wanting to give legitimacy to the sitting president and administration- but TWIST:
“That’s what I like to call him, “the current president.” I find it difficult to say or type his name, George W. Bush. I like to call him “the current president” because it’s a hopeful phrase, implying that his administration is only temporary.”
That’s right- this book sits squarely in the Bush administration. I need an amended edition to take stock of our current political quagmire. How could we have known how much worse it could get?! There are also eerie asides in her travels about restaurants full of confederate flags (Loser Blankies is a term I prefer), state reps praising confederate “heroes”, and right-wing extremists ordering t-shirts modeled after the one worn by the Oklahoma City Bomber (he doesn’t need any more name recognition). Stories like these have only grown in number since this book was published- the normalization of bigoted nonsense is at a frightening high, but looking back into history it would seem that we only have worse places to go in the future. Yikes.
I highly recommend that you check out the audiobook of this particular tome. Although it beat You Must Remember This to the airwaves by quite a few years, it has a real “podcast” vibe, which is heightened by great guest voices: Conan O’Brien! Eric Bogosian! Catherine Keener! Tony Kushner! My favorite addition is Jon Stewart playing a particularly hearty President Garfield. His campaign song is quite a treat. There is also music throughout provided by Michael Giacchino, adding a real Ken Burns documentary vibe.
Assassination Vacation isn’t just a look back on the murky past, nor is it a rumination on the messy present (her present and our presents included). There’s a bit of hope – Vowell’s pitch-black hope:
“Like Lincoln, I would like to believe the ballot is stronger than the bullet. Then again, he said that before he got shot.”