BANVARD'S FOLLY: Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity and Rotten Luck

Paul Collins, Author . Picador $25 (272p) ISBN 978-0-312-26886-2

In this collection, first-time author Collins resurrects from the junk heap of obscurity 13 figures who earned considerable fame and notoriety during their lifetimes. For example, we meet a 19th-century plagiarist so talented he managed to convince the world, not to mention London theater society, of the "discovery" of documents, even plays, penned by Shakespeare. Then there are the inventor of a universal language based on music, the champion of the pneumatic subway system and the father of the Concord grape. Some were crackpots, some were charlatans, some were genuine talents, but almost all of them were forgotten, their endeavors trampled under the heels of time. But these men (and one woman) are a far cry from overlooked Van Goghs or even subjects worthy of an Errol Morris documentary. Collins, a fluent writer who debuted several of these profiles in McSweeney's online journal, fails to make his characters entirely sympathetic or worthy of our attention. Thus we are left with their quirky achievements, or non-achievements as the case may be. And with a pace bogged down in excessive sourcing (as in "A.J. Pleasonton's Blue Light Special") and prose sometimes hard to access, readers may soon find themselves wondering whether these people are worth the rescue. Collins suggests that many of his innovators fell prey to a savage national character trait. He writes, "the only real sin in America is failure. The man or woman of promise who has nothing but excuses to offer at the end of the day—these people we do worse than despise. We avert our gaze and excuse ourselves from their presence." Arguable points certainly, but far from absolutes upon which to compose a paean. While Collins's research is commendable and his passion sincere, this admittedly noble effort feels shy of maturation. The association with McSweeney's (read: Dave Eggers) is fertile soil indeed, and one can only hope Collins's next project bears sweeter fruit. (June)

Reviewed on: 05/28/2001
Release date: 05/01/2001
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