THE UNITED STATES OF ABSURDITY: UNTOLD STORIES FROM AMERICAN HISTORY
Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds
Ten Speed Press, 2017, 144 pages
The United States of Absurdity is a mix of the rapid-fire wit and non-sequiturs of Car Talk, the bad boy flippancy of Howard Stern, and offbeat history. Its authors, Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds, are stand-up comedians that host a Los Angeles-based podcast called The Dollop, from whence much of the material in this book derives. Their collection of bizarre episodes from the past is analogous to offerings such as Strange History (2016), The Weird and Mysterious United States (2016), and America’s Strange History (2014). Ultimately, such outré agglomerations of factoids draw their inspiration from the phenomenal success of the Kenneth Davis’ Don’t Know Much About History franchise and James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me blockbuster. Anthony and Reynolds add something those other titles lack: running commentary that’s frequently outlandish, bawdy, scatological, and filled with expletives. It’s not suitable for classroom use.
The book is divided into somewhat arbitrary categories—Great American Characters, Medical Breakthroughs, Best of American Sports, When Americans Go Wrong, Very Bad American Ideas, and American Tails—with short vignettes within each. We get freak show stars such as Grady F. Stiles, Jr. (1937-92), the “Lobster Boy,” who was born with claw-like appendages (ectrodactyly). Stiles grew drunkenly despondent when neither of his wives birthed a similarly endowed heir and eventually murdered his daughter’s fiancé. We are also treated Mike the Chicken, a fowl that was beheaded in 1945 but avoided the stewpot and lived for another two years on the stage. One of the more appalling characters in the book is Ervin Arnold. Between 1919 and 1921, this Newport-based sailor convinced authorities to help him ferret out gay sailors by using (allegedly) straight sailors to have sex with them. The ensuing scandal led Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt to resign, lest it ruin his political ambitions.
Especially noteworthy is how the authors reveal the darker sides of famous people. Who hasn’t heard of the Heimlich maneuver? Did you know that Heimlich was also a quack that claimed he could cure cancer or AIDS by inducing malaria in patients? Even more horrifying were the misapplications of a procedure invented by Dr. Walter F. Freeman: the lobotomy. For skin-crawling creepiness, few have abused science like Dr. John Lilly, a drug-addled lunatic who once told his wife that aliens abducted him, removed his penis, and handed it to him. When told his organ was still intact, he insisted it was a mechanical substitution. Well: who wouldn’t allow such a man to conduct an experiment (1965) aimed at decoding dolphin communication by having a woman live with and sexually stimulate a cetacean?
To say this book strolls on the bizarre side understates. Remember the guy (Rollen Stewart) with the rainbow Afro that used to troll TV cameras and flash a John 3:16 sign? Did you know he’s serving life for kidnapping? Do you recall the Ford Pinto? In 1973 it was used as a flying car prototype and proved even less airworthy than road-ready. Are you aware that former baseball star Lenny Dykstra was a low-life huckster? Or that an unexplained “meat” shower fell upon Kentucky in 1876? (One theory is that it was vomit from a flock of vultures caught in a storm!)
Not all of the authors’ “untold stories” pass muster. Dr. John Brinkley of goat gland transplant infamy has been the subject of books and a documentary, the 1974 Cleveland Indians ten-cent beer night riot is well-documented, and loads of people know about the 1970 White House encounter between Nixon and Elvis. Still, most of the stuff in this book is unorthodox fodder from which skilled teachers can fashion fun learn exercises.
This is the kind of book from which I would have read to classes as a change of pace in my high school teaching days. That is, had it been written in appropriate language. One gets the sense that Anthony and Reynolds are hamming it up for those who are already fans of their shtick. Things that work on a comedy stage or podcast often come across as sophomoric on the page. They tell of Dykstra’s attempt to curry favor with teammates by farting at a table full of priests thusly: “Then they were all, ‘Oh yeah, he’s awesome'” (loc. 316). They seldom shy from the tawdry and cheap. They make lots of (too) easy sex jokes in discussing Ervin Arnold’s homosexual witch-hunt: “…his investigation consisted of sending straight men to be gay with gay men. Yes, this was a good plan and absolutely not gay” (loc. 861). They conclude with, “Arnold eventually left the Navy. He was never punished. (But ooooohhh how he wanted it be…”) (loc. 882). There is an ongoing joke of “God we love alcohol” and lots of F-bombs. Typical is a toss-away line in the story of Leonard Borchardt (1882-1923), who allowed himself to be covered in tar and horsehair to pass as the savage Oofty Goofy: “He said yes before he knew what he was supposed to do. That’s what we call a massive fuck-up” (loc.337).
All of this makes The United States of Absurdity equal parts fascination, revelation, puerile, and juvenile. As much as I admired a break from the turgidity of scholarly prose, I yearned for less obvious and broad humor, as well as less structural randomness. Anthony and Reynolds play loose with chronology, eschew any semblance of historical significance, and opt instead for “Fun Facts.” I’m all for making education more fun—as long as it does, in fact educate. Mine this book, but please don’t assign it—unless you want to leave teaching for stand-up.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst