CHASING THE LAST LAUGH

by Richard Zacks

Doubleday

978-0-385-53644-8

452pp/$30.00/April 2016

Chasing the Last Laugh

Reviewed by Steven H Silver


Mark Twain opens his 1897 travelogue, Following the Equator by giving a little background of his trip, stating:

“The starting point of this lecturing-trip around the world was Paris, where we had been living a year or two.

“We sailed for America, and there made certain preparations. This took but little time. Two members of my family elected to go with me. Also a carbuncle. The dictionary says a carbuncle is a kind of jewel. Humor is out of place in a dictionary.

“We started westward from New York in midsummer, with Major Pond to manage the platform-business as far as the Pacific. It was warm work, all the way, and the last fortnight of it was suffocatingly smoky, for in Oregon and British Columbia the forest fires were raging. We had an added week of smoke at the seaboard, where we were obliged to wait awhile for our ship. She had been getting herself ashore in the smoke, and she had to be docked and repaired.

“We sailed at last; and so ended a snail-paced march across the continent, which had lasted forty days.”

What takes Train four paragraphs to describe in his book takes Richard Zacks more than 100 pages to cover in his book Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour. Zacks presents a much more informative look at the “little time” Twain describes, explaining that not only were Twain and his wife Livy beset by health issues, but also were dealing with numerous law suits and subpoenas relating to Twain’s failed publishing company and his failure to pay his creditors. The trip around the world, which Twain didn’t want to make, was done in order to raise the funds to retire his vast amounts of debt.

Chasing the Last Laugh is, in many ways a companion piece to Following the Equator, providing the personal background that Mark Twain was to circumspect, or too embarassed, to share with his readers. Because of this, it doesn't quite live up to its subtitle, which sounds like Zacks is providing a riotous buddy movie in book form, as is also promised by the opening vignette of the Twains using a railroad in the Himalayas as a private roller coaster. Instead, Zacks reveals the private Canio behind Twain's public Pagliaccio.

The Twain who traveled around the world amusing audiences suffered from financial concerns and ill health. He and his wife missed the two daughters they left behind, even while enjoying the company of the daughter who traveled with them. While Zacks's book could have simply recounted the information and the travels that appear in Following the Equator, Zacks does quite a bit more. His access to Twain's personal papers means that he is able to include pieces Twain wrote for possible inclusion in the book, which he later thought better of. More importantly, the concerns exhibited by Twain, his wife, and daughter in their letters helps flesh out the humans who made the tour.

Although Livy Clemens and Clara Clemens were Twain's companions on the journey, their relationship doesn't come across clearly in the book. Livy is constantly described as having a moderating effect on Twain, who is shown as going off half-cocked at the slightest perceived provocation, but Zacks doesn't attempt to understand their marraige or show how they worked together. Their relationship seems quite stilted, with Twain doing his own thing and Livy and Clara going off to do their own thing at many of the stops. Twain's own need to rest up on any days he was speaking in public, further limit their interactions and travels.

Zacks's book and research stand up on their own, although they are best read with a copy of Following the Equator near to hand as well as access to the internet, for Zacks often makes references and gives background information to the areas Twain visiting and the sights he saw, but he doesn't have the space, or the focus, to give complete information. Similarly, a map outlining Twain's journey would have been a nice addition to the book (or to Following the Equator, for that matter).

Zacks does a good job explaining the reasons for Twain's round-the-world tour and providing depth and a context for the book that Twain managed to get out of the trip. In the process, Zacks is able to cut through a lot of the hyperbole which Twain included in his wriitng for humorous effect, however at a distance of 120 years, there are only some many details of a private trip that can be reconstructed, even with the extensive letter-writing and journal maintained by Twain and Livy. Linked, as it is, so closely to Following the Equator, Chasing the Last Laugh works better in conjunction, or immediately after, reading Twain's book, almost like a throroughly researched commentary track.


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