Like so many of her fellow McSweeney's contributors and NPR commentators, Sarah Vowell has a way of putting a lively, intense spin on in-depth investigations of obscure topics; her quirky essays in collections like The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Take The Cannoli put a personal face on subjects from American citizenship to pop culture. Assassination Vacation does the same with Vowell's pilgrimage around the country to sites related–sometimes loosely–to the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley; visiting museums, tombs, public plaques and historic houses, she pieces together the separate histories of three presidential assassins, from their means and motives to their unpleasant ends. It's a morbid occupation for a woman currently best known as the voice of the plucky, shy Violet in the animated blockbuster The Incredibles, but Vowell embraces her macabre hobby, even gleefully noting how she's passing it on to her 3-year-old nephew.
Assassination Vacation is at its most involving when that glee is apparent. In a lively introduction, Vowell recounts how she appalled her fellow guests at a New England bed and breakfast by energetically burbling over the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins. The book only intermittently lives up to that high point, as Vowell sometimes sets aside her insightful observations and simply follows a dry historical chain of events. It's not that she has to be shocking to be entertaining–her sincere and appreciative meetings with docents, park rangers, and tour guides along her route yield some of the book's best segments. "One of the advantages of visiting historic sites as opposed to merely reading about them is the endearing glow of hometown pride," she comments at one point, and she ably captures that endearing interest without either mocking her subjects or ignoring the subtle humor involved in their pride in the odd and sometimes gruesome relics they guard.
And her obsession with the smallest trivia about her topic turns up fascinating fruit. Dissecting John Wilkes Booth's writings and history, she sympathizes slightly with him as a man who clearly believed not only that he was a patriot and a hero, but that the rest of the country was insane for not properly appreciating him. Garfield assassin Luther Guiteau, meanwhile, is portrayed as a mentally ill crackpot who couldn't get laid even during five years in a sex-centric commune, and who composed bizarre poetry to read at his hanging. Each of Vowell's three subjects gets less attention than the last, and McKinley and his killer, Emma Goldman groupie Leon Czolgosz, are given fairly short shrift. But Assassination Vacation isn't a comprehensive history, any more than it's a tour guide to presidential monuments, a vacation diary, or a trivia collection. It's all of the above, and some of those facets are more interesting than others. Like any detailed documentation of a private obsession, Assassination Vacation can seem a bit dull in the details, at least when Vowell herself doesn't openly show her enthusiasm. But when she does, that enthusiasm is infectious, and Vowell's nephew won't be the only fan who's glad to come along for the ride.