The embodiment of revolution comes in for an appropriately anarchic—and wild, and thoroughly enjoyable—appreciation.
Fans of Mornington Crescent, a game of “complete and utter nonsense” that is more familiar to Brits than Americans, will be quite at home with blogger/editor/journalist/McSweeney’s regular Collins’s elegantly written but highly centrifugal treatment of what happened to Thomas Paine’s remains. “Any rube visiting Britain” is free to ask the rules of Mornington Crescent, observes Collins, but he is sure to be “methodically flummoxed with absurdly fake histories of the game and utter evasion as to its actual workings.” So it is with this masterpiece of misdirection, which opens at a gay bar in Manhattan on the site of which Paine died. A few beers later, Collins is chasing across the water, where William Cobbett, antinomian author of countless libertarian pamphlets, had spirited Paine’s bones. His skull a Yorick-like talisman for London radicals, Paine did yeoman service in the afterlife, but eventually, bits and pieces of his body went wandering off into the collections of vicars and natural philosophers—and as to just where, well, Collins asks and is flummoxed, and not just because all the high street house numbers have been changed since Georgian days. Confronted with failure, Collins takes delightful detours into the odd lives of the Victorian vegetarians and phrenologists and freethinkers who kept the Paine cult going as Paine himself was steadily forgotten in their day, a sad fate for an author whose Common Sense once sold second only to the Bible. The search takes Collins through dusty warrens and back alleys and rainy roads, all full of the promise of adventure; even a London bench “missing every single one of its slats” has a role in the great game that’s afoot.
Literary travel meets history, laced with cartloads of trivia and endless good humor. Somewhere Tom Paine, scourge of kings and conventions, is smiling.