The first thing I did when I picked up Sarah Vowell's latest book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, was laugh at that word "somewhat." (In the book, she also calls it the "ironically named United States.") The second thing I did was go: "Ah, yes, Lafayette. Lafayette... Wait, who's Lafayette again?" I knew I should know. The name was definitely familiar. After all, there's a subway stop in New York City named Lafayette. There's a park across the street from the White House named Lafayette. Many US towns are named Lafayette. But for the life of me, I was having a hard time connecting the name to a face, or a life.
Now that I've read the book, I can tell you confidently that Lafayette was a wealthy French 19-year-old who had what Vowell calls "a juvenile lust for glory" who ended up being one of the most important figures in the American Revolution. Not only because he sailed over here and volunteered to fight for George Washington for free, but also because he used his connections to convince Louis XVI to cough up a gigantic wad of dough to finance America's war, which eventually contributed to the bankruptcy that sparked the French Revolution and cost Louis XVI his head. I can also tell you that the "L" in L. Ron Hubbard stands for Lafayette and that "the founders of both C-SPAN and Guns N' Roses were born" in Lafayette, Indiana.
In an interview last week at the Neptune Theatre, I asked Vowell about the consistently casual language in her books—a vocal register that sounds more like she's chatting up a friendly neighbor down the street than documenting the bloody horrors of Valley Forge. She said she gets asked this question a lot, and it perplexes her. "Have you ever lived for 12 hours?" she said. "Sometimes we're laughing and telling jokes, and then we're burying our dead."
Speaking of Valley Forge—the sneaky Christmas military operation led by George Washington that seemed so brilliant and cunning when I first learned about it in middle school—I had no idea (until Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, which cites Randy Shilts's book Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the US Military) that the first known soldier to be kicked out of the US military for being gay was a solider at Valley Forge. As Vowell writes, "Washington ordered drummers and fifers to badger the man from the camp." Nor had I known that Washington's soldiers at Valley Forge were "nearly naked," and their lack of shoes resulted in them bleeding all over the snow and frozen ground.
But the French soldiers who came to help us fight our war? They had uniforms like crazy: "As if stepping out of a Tchaikovsky ballet directed by Wes Anderson, the French soldiers wore plumed black hats and white on white, brightening their snowy leggings and jackets with pops of color on their lapels—their sometimes pink lapels." The oddity of American rebels enlisting a French monarch's help to prove their anti-monarch stance toward governance is a deeply irreconcilable paradox, a weird basic fact of our country's existence that is easy to forget (and, by the way, "history's first military pact between an absolute monarch and anti-monarchist republicans").
Then again, when it comes to weird basic facts, all you have to do is turn on a presidential debate to remind yourself of the irreconcilable paradoxes and contemptuous rifts at the highest levels of American public life. This is one of those books that reminds us things have been this way since the beginning. Vowell writes that the "quintessential experience of living in the United States" is "constantly worrying whether or not the country is about to fall apart." She also writes that it's a place where we can never agree on anything except the "bipartisan consensus on barbecue and Meryl Streep." She calls it our "centuries-old, all-American inability to get our shit together."
While tracking down Lafayette's story, she meets a Quaker who's of the opinion that there are too many war books in the history section of the bookstore, implying that maybe if there weren't so many war books, there wouldn't be so much infighting. Vowell counters, "I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything, and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates."