A comedy of misunderstandings blooms to perfection in Whorton’s (Approximately Heaven, 2003) enchanting and erudite caper, set in hillbilly eastern Tennessee.
Imagine an aspiring historian, smart, idealistic, and dogged, but with the unhappy knack of making wrong decisions. Then meet our narrator, 28-year-old John Tolley. Comfortably ensconced in Ohio as editor of a Civil War magazine, he abruptly moves to New York and winds up as a spit-roaster. However, research on his special interest, President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, yields a clue to a missing Johnson scrapbook, and it becomes John’s goal to hunt it down and make history. Suckered into buying a rapidly expiring Plymouth Duster, he barely makes it to Tennessee. Once there, nothing is what it seems. A female mail-carrier appears to be stealing a newspaper, and a little man emerges from a hole to mug him. When it turns out that the little man is a harmless dog trainer, Boo Price, and the scrupulously honest mail carrier is his cousin Dweena, Whorton’s deadpan comic genius exploits the misunderstandings—here and elsewhere—for laugh-out-loud results. John rents a log house from Boo and learns about treeing coons and dipping tobacco (culture-shock, but no cheap shots). His big break comes when a prestigious history magazine offers to publish his Johnson article. Oops, sorry: the editor, Professor Luke Van Brun, has confused John with a Buchanan essayist; John’s own essay is, er, water-damaged. And so it goes. John’s quest for that missing scrapbook becomes more complicated when he crosses paths with Danielle, reporter for a cable news show looking for a big story, and more complicated still when the treacherous Van Brun tries to steal John’s lead. It’s all great fun, but there’s also a poignancy to John’s realization that he has “a screwiness, deep down,” which sent him on this wild-goose chase.
The good news is that John and Dweena overcome their excruciating shyness to find romance. A joy.