I think that Paul Collins could write a telephone directory and make it compelling. He is that good a writer. The first time I read one of his books, he was writing about a subject dear to my heart, but since then I've read and loved his other books, which were about things I'd normally find mildly interesting and things I would not have pursued otherwise.
His latest release, The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine falls into that third category; it's not the sort of book I'd typically seek out. It actually reads a bit like a prequel to Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation, and leaves me hoping that someday Collins and Vowell will take a trip together then co-author a book about the journey.
The Trouble With Tom is not exactly a biography, though it certainly has biographical elements. It's more a historical exploration, with a heavy dose of mystery whodunit, a bit of nineteenth century medical journal, and a great deal of comedic travelogue. It's... well, it's hard to pin down.
The book begins with the revolutionary Thomas Paine, and provides a brief account of his life. It is at his death, however, that the story gets rolling. Collins writes in a flash-back-flash-forward style as he retraces the steps that Paine's body (well, some of the pieces of his body, at any rate) took (well, may have taken, at any rate) from the moment of his death in 1809 until... well, it's hard to say when. Through Collins's narrative we travel to 1809 and the Herring Street boarding house where Paine breathed his last; we also join Collins on his recent pilgrimage to that hallowed ground, now a Grove Street piano bar filled with the sounds of Rogers and Hammerstein in bass-barritone. And it only gets stranger from there.
Along the way, we meet a variety of supporting characters who participated in the complicated catch-and-release of Paine's remains and others who searched for them as they remained perpetually out-of-reach. And we get a fascinating history lesson to boot.
My favorite moments in the book, though, are those in which Collins shares his own insights, perspectives and notions. He writes:
We forget all the time. We forget nearly every single impression that passes through our minds. What we ate for lunch: who our roommate was ten years ago: what we paid for a soda in 1982: what we just came from the living room to the kitchen for. It is constant and vital, and we only notice it if everyday useful things go missing. Every moment gets thrown out like so much garbage - which, in a sense, is what the past is. Memory is a toxin, and its overretention - the constant replaying of the past - is the hallmark of stress disorders and clinical depression. The elimination of memory is a bodily function, like the elimination of urine. Stop urinating and you have renal failure: stop forgetting and you go mad. And so it is that the details of nearly every single day that we have lived, nearly every single moment of each day, nearly every person that we have met and spoken to, the exact wording of the paragraph that you have just read... Gone.
The Trouble With Tom is overflowing with these thoughtful asides. It revisits long-since-discarded ideologies and theories. It depicts a history in which disparate characters and uncommon worlds collide. It paints the past as a series of mishaps and missteps, all stumbling sideways, askance and askew, but always in the general direction of the future. It is a remarkable book.
If only I could remember what it said.