In The Last Refuge of Scoundrels, novelist Paul Lussier has created a big, funny, raunchy version of the American Revolution that is at once both silly and significant. Silly, because of its satiric treatment of the founding fathers, which is cuttingly burlesque. Significant, because, in its own way, it reasonably questions the standard interpretations of the historical treatment of the period. As the novel’s protagonist, Henry Lawrence puts it, the problem with history is that it is made up of “hard, verifiable data, not stories, where the stuff of life resides.” This novel, on the other hand, is brimming with just such stories.
Lussier’s descriptions of the the leading figures in the American Revolution, “[e]ach his own brand of mad” is entertaining enough on its own to make the novel worth reading. Sam Adams, celebrated as a great democrat, was actually “a religious fanatic, with antiquated and dangerous puritanical ideas of, yes, an independent, deeply religious republic, stoic to the core, with himself the arbiter of morals.” John Hancock was “delicate, frail, whiny, tall, with eyes much too far apart, he was a sucker for flattery and had been complimented and cajoled into a friendship with Samuel Adams, who wanted access to Hancock’s cash in case the Puritan state never took hold and he was in need of bail.” John Adams was a fidgety, argumentative lawyer, who took on the patriot cause in part because that’s where the bulk of his potential fees lay and in part as an excuse to get away from his wife for years on end. “Adams wanted to be seen as manly and also as tall – the latter, believe it or not, easier for him to pull off than the former.”
History from the perspective of Mad Magazine you say? Perhaps. And yet, we have scenes such as the one when John Adams nominates George Washington as the Commander In Chief of the new army. “Washington, like a virgin bride, had to be begged to reenter the chamber out of which he’d begun strategically to tiptoe as John Adams put forward his name. What a show.”
All true. As is the fact that Washington showed up to the congress in full military uniform, having retrieved the one he’d worn over ten years earlier during his somewhat disastrous efforts in the Franco-Indian War. Had the uniform been saved all these years for just such an occasion as the revolution? In any event, you have to wonder how it could be that nobody had really seen the comic absurdity of Washington’s pose before Lussier.
The point of the book, though, is not just to derogate the founding fathers. Lussier’s portrayals are infused with affection and compassion. Clearly this author has not only read the biographies of the men and women that he describes, he has taken the time to view these people not through the chasm of history but face to face, across a bar-room table over a mug of not-so-excellent beer. These portrayals are funny not because they are true but because they contain an element of truth.
And perhaps the point of this novel (not that there need be one in a book as delightful to read as this) is that the founding fathers were not as central to the “true” story of the revolution as history makes them out to be. Lussier’s portrayals of John Lawrence and of Deborah Simpson, the prostitute that Lawrence reveres, are carefully and lovingly transcribed. As is the story of Alice, Deborah’s daughter, who the author tells us was “inspired by voluminous accounts of children who contributed to the war effort from Lexington on, often disguising themselves as young men eight to ten years older than their actual tender age in order to fight.”
The question that hovers throughout the book is: Just what was it that the American people were fighting for anyway? Lawrence is certainly at a loss to explain the motivation of people to fight a war over a luxury tax that would have little if any impact upon them. “Really, now, all bias aside, what business did gypsies, jack-tars, tenant farmers, and yeomen have complaining about surcharge on china? And at the opposite end, for merchants affluent enough to afford such items, what was a few extra pence?”
Lussier doesn’t answer the question – that’s not his job – but leaves it deliciously hanging there. However, when he describes the tight connection between Lawrence’s desire for Deborah, the prostitute, and his belief in the revolution, he posits a theory of how it is that these types of national movements actually come about. Deborah understands how to move men and how to make them believe in a cause – she appeals to a man’s heart, his sexuality, and his “ambition confused with need” in order to win over his allegiance. That will move many a man not so easily swayed by arguments about Lockean principals and natural rights.