Hot on the tail of a forgotten president

An amateur historian heads to the woods for the ultimate discovery

Alex, I'll take "American History" for $200.

He was the first US President to be impeached.

Who is Andrew Johnson?

If it weren't for Jeopardy, we might not ever hear his name. He enjoyed a little parenthetical attention during Bill Clinton's impeachment (finally, someone to feel his pain!), but otherwise, in the pantheon of American presidents, Andrew Johnson, No. 17, has become a figure of striking obscurity.

That's a shame because his biography is a tangle of remarkable events. A tailor taught to read by his teenage bride, he rose quickly through Tennessee politics. He entered the US Senate as the nation was breaking apart, and, though he defended slavery, he was the only Southern senator to remain after succession.

For his second term, Lincoln thought Johnson would make a conciliatory vice president, but John Wilkes Booth only gave him a month in that cushy job before thrusting him into the highest office of a nation ravaged by civil war.

Unfortunately, for people who had known Abraham Lincoln, he was - to coin a phrase - no Abraham Lincoln.

A funny little novel by James Whorton, called "Frankland," might do more than Jeopardy to raise Johnson's status - or at least your spirits. The title refers to a new state that Johnson once hoped to create from the Appalachian regions of North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee. His plan, as you may have guessed, didn't work out, but Whorton's does.

A kinder, gentler "Confederacy of Dunces," it's the story of John Tulley, an amateur historian who believes he can revolutionize American history by uncovering a scrapbook that once belonged to the scandal-ridden 17th president.

The success of a novel like this rests on the tenor of its narrator's voice, and Whorton hits that right on. At 28, John has already suffered a string of indignities. His college went bankrupt before he could finish a degree. His girlfriend left him (though he still remembers her marginalia fondly). His plans to dazzle New York City with academic brilliance devolved into tending a spit roaster at a Greek restaurant. His landlord steals his deposit and then sells him a lemon to drive away.

"Can a person so easily whipped as this," John asks himself, "look forward to any success in life?"

Nothing that happens in this novel gives much reason for hope, except his indomitable spirit. "My nature was gloomy, but I clung to life like a burr," he tells us. Having unearthed a tantalizing reference in the New York City library, John strikes out to Tennessee in search of a missing cache of letters and notes kept secret by the Johnson heirs.

What he knows about the South (and about people in general) stems almost exclusively from reading 19th-century history, and this, it turns out, is not very effective preparation for modern life. In addition to giving him an oddly formal manner of speaking, it makes him prone to almost constant disappointment.

As his jalopy sputters into a backwater town called Pantherville, he realizes this was "not only a bad move but a characteristic one. It fit right in with the series of choices I had made over the six previous months, in the course of which I had abandoned a life of secure and pleasant routine for a gamble that was almost certain to turn out badly and teach me things about myself that I did not want to learn."

He immediately gets caught up in a community of weirdos who find him equally odd. The first person he meets attacks him with a weed wacker; the postmistress seems to be stealing people's mail; the fireman is a pyromaniac.

John reacts to these people with priggish astonishment, but he's just as strange. "There was a screwiness, deep down," he admits. He lets us know that melamine is his "favorite material to eat from," and when he gets too excited, he blacks out - like a "fainting goat," a new neighbor observes.

"Most people around here don't talk like you," one of them tells John. "I could picture you on certain channels of television."

"The History Channel, maybe?" he asks.

"Maybe. Or something even more that way."

With only $220 to his name, he begins carefully planning his search for the missing presidential scrapbook. He rents a little cabin under humming high-power lines - "a classic of East Tennessee vernacular architecture" - but it has no phone or toilet, just a pet raccoon. "That was neither here nor there," he assures us triumphantly, "because my career as an historian had begun!"

It's not a smooth path to success. In fact, there's no success. There's not even a path. But along the way, John attracts the attention of a grotesque professor from Vanderbilt who's hot on the same trail, a crass TV producer from New York who's determined to sniff out a scandal, and a mousy postmistress who may be willing to overlook his peculiarities.

Zaniness ensues. Some of it's very funny, some of it falls flat. But the real treat here is always John's ridiculous formality - noble efforts to rouse his flagging spirits or punish his flights of vain hope. If winter is your time to burrow into heavy presidential biographies, pass this by, but if you're looking for something more hysterical than historical, Whorton has a nice, light touch.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.

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