I’m a fan of Comedy Central’s Drunk History. Sure, having intoxicated people stumble their way through famous episodes of America’s past while costumed actors act them out, lip-synching every belch, candid aside, and trip of the tongue can get a little formulaic, but like a Manhattan made with four parts bourbon, one part sweet vermouth, and one part dry vermouth—it’s a perfect recipe. What makes it even better is that they get most of the facts right. Even though I wouldn’t recommend that college students use their weekly viewing for course credit, they can at least take comfort in the fact that they’ve actually learned something—so long as they’re not too drunk themselves to remember.
If you like American history where the outlines are basically factual, but someone is putting their own wild spin on the characters, check out these three works of historical fiction.
Deadwood, by Pete Dexter
You thought Deadwood was just that awesome HBO series where Ian McShane raised profanity to the level of performance art? (Come to think of it, Robin Weigert as Calamity Jane was a one-woman drunk history show.) Well, Pete Dexter wrote a brilliant book of the same name that, curiously, isn’t cited as a source for the series, despite perfectly predicting the mud-, blood-, and other-bodily-substance-splattered milieu of the show that got canceled far too soon. Dexter did his research, so many of the details are historically accurate. But did doomed hero Wild Bill Hickock spend so much time thinking about his “peeder”? It’s artistic license, but we’re guessing he probably did.
The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe, by Andrew O’Hagan
If the subject of O’Hagan’s follow-up to Be Near Me (2007) was surprising, the level of his research into mid-century American showbiz is even more so. While the book is ostensibly about Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, Frank Sinatra, and JFK play roles, as do Carson McCullers, Lillian Hellman, and even Allen Ginsberg. The fact that the whole thing is seen through the eyes of an erudite dog (Mafia Honey, or “Maf,” for short), might have you wondering whether you need a glass of the hair of the dog to ward off your growing suspicion that the animals in your life are looking at you funny. Sure, this book contains trenchant insight about our attitude toward celebrities and the anxiety of the outsider, but it can also simply be read as as a fascinating slice of American history, voiced by a most unlikely narrator.
The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, by Jerome Charyn
Charyn knows just about everything there is to know about the Belle of Amherst, but that doesn’t stop him from making plenty of stuff up. Scrupulously following the timeline and facts of Dickinson’s life, he takes, ahem, poetic license with her thoughts, feelings, and motivations, in effect drawing a mohawk and sunglasses on the famous daguerreotype of the prim and proper lady. Charyn’s humor is all the funnier for having been written in a voice as precise as the poems that made her immortal—not that she talks much about those. Emily’s secret life is all about her dog, her dad, her difficult sister-in-law, and her hopeless love for Tom, the tattooed handyman turned thief.