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The following review appeared 17 April 2015 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Mark Twain claimed that James Fenimore Cooper broke eighteen of the rules governing literary art, and basted him, butterless, on all sides for bungling his book, The Deerslayer. Naturally, this reviewer was curious to learn how many of those rules Patrick Fanning would infringe in Infidels Abroad. The answer? Only one (#14), and that was a minor infraction, so even Mark Twain would have to declare himself pleased with this Twain't that borrows Mark Twain as a character along with the painter John Singer Sargent and places them in California in 1879 in the midst of an alternative history in which California is divided under Russian rule in the north (Rossland) and Mexican rule in the south (Republic of Alta California), and the United States has only just recovered from catastrophic economic collapse following a Civil War that ended in 1871. They are joined by a lovely and mysterious young woman, Marina Miranova, who shares some outrageous adventures with them.
Mark Twain would also be pleased to notice how closely Fanning's literary style aligns with his own, and would find Fanning's word choices, phrases, and expressions strangely familiar. In fact, he'd soon notice that entire sentences have been lifted verbatim from his own works and woven into Fanning's text in clever ways. And by the time the three main characters (Mark Twain, John Singer Sargent, and Miss Miranova) are fleeing down a river on a raft, he'd also notice that Fanning's homage to his writings includes plots as well as words.
Fanning, a talented artist whose own works evoke the lighting and subjects of Sargent, has illustrated his novel with his own art as well as nineteenth century photographs, and both lend a convincing verisimilitude to his story. They help the reader willingly suspend his disbelief, a necessary requirement if the story is to be fully enjoyed on its own fictional terms. The topsy-turvy historical setting and the Twainian borrowings would not be permissible in a work of nonfiction, but in this playful tall tale they are part of the charm. Twainians will enjoy watching their hero, a seasoned traveler, cogitating on the challenges presented by Fanning's terra excogitari.
The story begins when Mark Twain and John Singer Sargent meet while steaming from the Sandwich Islands to San Francisco in 1879. The entire setting and story will not be divulged here, but Fanning includes a helpful "Alternative History Timeline" at pages 325-30, (which might have been more helpful if placed at pages 1-5) that explains how California has come to be divided into two countries. Beginning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the history of North America has not unfolded in the way our history books tell us, and our three protagonists are soon embarked on a trip from relatively safe southern California into Tsarist northern California. Along the way, Sargent, struggling with his feelings, is attracted to Mark Twain; Twain (unmarried) is beguiled by the charms of Marina; and Marina is attracted to the handsome young Sargent. These conflicting attractions lead to the predictable twists and turns that such conflicts always impose on a plot, as the story unfolds in a series of narratives interspersed with letters that Twain writes to his friend William Dean Howells, editor of The Atlantic Weekly (not Monthly) and his mother Mary (yes, Mary, and she lives on Thatcher Street) while Sargent writes to his friend Henry James, among others. When describing the same events, their letters don't always agree, adding to the amusement. For those not familiar with John Singer Sargent's biography, he is generally thought to have been homosexual or bisexual, and Henry James was indeed a friend and patron. Sargent hopes to paint Twain's portrait and make a name for himself by exhibiting it in Paris (in real life, Sargent's attempt to make a name for himself by painting a sexy portrait of a Parisian society dame -- Virginie Gautreau -- infamously backfired). Sargent eventually does paint Twain draped in a red duster and holding a revolver across his chest and this portrait appears on the front cover of the book. For an explanation of this portrait the book must be read, but it could have something to do with the fact that while our entangled trio is in northern California there is an assassination and they must flee south on a raft, experiencing a variety of adventures that include disguises, narrow escapes, violence, and revelations. This may sound vaguely familiar to some Twainians.
If the models for Fanning's characters were alive this would border on becoming a roman a clef, but it is certainly an enjoyable heavy-handed pastiche, with elements borrowed from Twain's writings at every turn. There are shades of The Innocents Abroad when they excitedly prepare to meet the Tsar (139), an evocation of the Arno River in Florence when Twain describes a shallow river in California (148), a reminder of Twain's San Francisco days when he describes the plight of the Chinese (262), and Twain's debate with himself over whether to betray his friends at one point strongly echoes Huck's wrestling with his conscience over betraying his friend Jim, but Fanning allows this moment to pass without Twain declaring that he'd "go to Hell" (287-88). Twain's interest in a Russian mine recalls his mining days in Nevada (145-46), and Twain's planning an escape based upon his readings of romantic literature sounds a lot like Tom Sawyer's evasions to rescue Jim (278). A twisted version of the jumping frog story is told (272-75), and an alternative version of Twain's near duel is told (275-77), but an accurate rendering of "The Golden Arm" also appears (254-56).
Those familiar with Twain's writings will find themselves distracted by the avalanche of words (galley-west, fantods, flap-doodle), phrases, and entire sentences lifted from his works, as well as amusing references to his biography. Far be it from this reviewer to spoil a potential parlor game but when readers sit down to read this book they might want to keep copies of Twain's letters, The Innocents Abroad, Life on the Mississippi, Extract From Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven, and other books close at hand, and pay special attention at pages 12, 37, 38, 41, 48, 50, 73, 98, 100, 131, 137, 154, 161, 174, 178, 185, 187, 188, 208, 209, 250, 251, 309, and 320. This is not a complete list, but only a few highlights, provided for those who want to test their knowledge of Twain's writings and biography.
Perhaps the only weakness in this Twain't is Fanning's enthusiasm when providing alternative biographical histories of Twain and Sargent. Sargent is beyond the scope of this review in this forum, but the alternative historical details of his life seem consistent with the plot -- although Fanning may have missed a chance to weave in the odd coincidence that Sargent was once the roommate of James Carroll Beckwith, a Hannibal-born artist who did indeed paint a portrait of Twain. However, the alternative historical details of Twain's life sometimes seem gratuitous. While Twain's being unmarried in 1879 so that he is free to pursue Marina, or his speaking only English and some poor Spanish both serve to advance the story, other altered details do not. Henry is said to have died in 1870, and while Fanning writes eloquently of the anguish Twain felt and how Henry's ghost likely influenced his later writings, moving Henry's death to a more recent time does not matter. Twain's other brother is named Orrin, his mother is named Mary, his publisher is Broadwell Publishing Company, and his birthplace is Hannibal, but none of these alternative details advance the story in any way, running afoul of Twain's own rule number 14. But they don't impede this tale either, so this is a small distraction.
Twainians wishing to see the color versions of Fanning's illustrations in this book can visit his website, fanningartworks.com, and view his Sargent-inspired renderings of scenes from the book as well as the full length portrait of a gun-toting Mark Twain. Those with a hankering for an entertaining beach read that will evoke Mark Twain will find this book just the thing.