Review | Alexandra Petri saves U.S. history as only she can: By making it silly

The first thing to remember when writing a good book review is that it should be more than a summary. This is great news for me as the reviewer of “Alexandra Petri’s US History: Important American Documents (I Made Up),” because Washington Post columnist Petri’s book is such a wide-ranging collection — including a quiz titled “Would You Describe Yourselves as Normal Europeans? A Survey for New Arrivals” and an examination of “1970s Urban Legends” — that it’s difficult to synopsize.

If I had to, though, I would sketch out its contents as follows: These 84 short texts are presented, as the title suggests, as lesser-known artifacts from and about the American past. Collectively, they reveal what happens when a gifted comedic writer takes bona fide pieces of American history and uses them as occasions to go brilliantly bananas.

For instance, there were once Puritan parents in this country, a situation that does not immediately scream “comic material!” Nonetheless, Petri uses this fact as a launching point for a listicle called “Top Toys for Puritan Parents,” which includes useful info for those parents who are looking for a pacifier yet are disturbed because “the notion of being at peace even for a moment smacks of antinomian heresy.” For them, Petri promises, there is the “Unpacifier,” which is, helpfully, “wormwood-flavored.”

Similarly, D-Day is a moment in our history that has not often been mined by today’s great comic minds. But Petri’s “discovery” of Jim Henson’s long-lost script “D-Day: A Very Special Sesame Street Episode” is funny not only because, in Petri’s hands, D-Day is sponsored by the letter “D” (and the words “drown,” “die” and “drink”) but also because it includes Elmo saying “Elmo loves you,” in his death scene.

Also, there is no disputing the fact that Herman Melville wrote “Moby-Dick.” But has there ever been any insight into how Melville pitched that book to his editor? Petri has “found” the long-lost details! “Herman Melville Pitches His Editor” begins:

Ok, it’s a book about whales.

Go on.

That’s it, just whales.

Are you a whale expert?

Kind of? I mean I know a lot of facts about whales, definitely, but none of them are correct.

Lest you despair that this is the book’s sole Melville-oriented content, there is also “Moby Dick: An Oral History”:

Queequeg: Let me put it this way: it was the kind of voyage where midway through you start building yourself a coffin.

Ishmael: I thought it was overdramatic that Queequeg started literally building himself a coffin. It was very emo and passive aggressive, I thought.

Ahab: Ultimately we tried to tell people it was a very small lifeboat with a lid, but it was definitely a coffin.

Good book reviews are never supposed to make big pronouncements about the book’s author, so I will keep my observations appropriately focused and share that Petri’s latest book demonstrates primarily two things: One, she is a genius; and two, no, she really is.

To better understand the particulars of her brilliance, it is helpful to think back to a slightly more recent incident than those she parodies in her new book: Jan. 2, 2021, when President Donald Trump called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. You surely remember what an enraging and frightening event this was: Our then-president was pressuring the Georgia secretary of state to “find” him votes to overturn the election.

If you are Petri, here’s how you reframe that episode to transform it into comedy: You structure the entire event as a submission to a Reddit forum where users tell (often unflattering) stories about themselves and ask others to decide whether they are or are not, well, the jerk. In Petri’s parody, a self-doubting Raffensperger confesses forlornly to the anonymous forum, “A lot of people seem mad at me” after he refused to do the bidding of a “confused older man.”

In the study of creative writing, an essay with a borrowed form — like President Nixon’s tapes in the Important American Document “Richard Nixon Tapes But Just the Parts Where He’s Yelling at Checkers” — is called a “hermit crab essay.” Petri’s use of borrowed forms, particularly in this book, is so skilled that it often communicates as much as the content itself. In an age of gloomy doomsday tweets that crow their predictions of exactly how the world is ending, Petri approaches her material sideways — as it happens, like a crab. In making her brilliant leaps, she successfully reformulates what can feel like horrible and overwhelming news, transforming it into something more manageable, not to mention hilarious, if only for a few precious minutes.

While unfettered here from the constraints of responding to daily news, as in her Post column, Petri still uses these creative tactics as she looks to the past. With pieces like “The Team at Build-a-Bear Responds on the Thirteenth Anniversary of 9/11,” she revisits historical facts and then repurposes them with a wild inventiveness: “The silence of Build-a-Bear on the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11 would speak volumes. Our thousands of followers are not going to want this date to pass unremarked,” worries one (fictional) employee of the company. “With respect, I think you are laboring under a large misapprehension about how people view the Build-a-Bear Twitter account,” their co-worker replies.

That Petri riffs on specific works of literature and historical events may limit the book’s appeal for some, as anyone not already familiar with Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp,’” for instance, may not immediately enjoy “Notes on Camp by Susan Sontag, aged Fifteen, Camp Winnebago.” But those primed to the peculiarities of the past will surely take great pleasure in the way Petri combines Sontag’s severe style with storytelling more akin to Judy Blume.

In some regards, AP’s fictional documents tread similar ground as John Hodgman’s three books of fake facts, which he bills as “an almanac of complete world knowledge.” The trilogy includes “The Areas of My Expertise,” a book that contains, among other things, a list of 700 hobo names. Petri’s wide-ranging “Important American Documents” may mostly resemble, however, comedian Judah Friedlander’s amazing 2017 Netflix comedy special, “America Is the Greatest Country in the United States.” In it, Friedlander splices together several years of crowd work,, using ad hoc conversations with audience members from all over the globe as building blocks to reveal “America” as a less a union of states than a ridiculous, supremacy-obsessed state of mind.

Petri is doing something similar here, but with the nation’s past instead of its fractured present. In fashioning her “Important American Documents,” she plays with the familiar idea that history is written “by the winners.” Like Friedlander, who consistently wears a T-shirt that says “World Champ” (Of what? Who cares!), Petri is, as she cheekily notes in the introduction, now a winner. After all, she has written a book — of history! In adopting this ostentatiously Friedlanderian stance, she effectively skewers all unnamed others who are deadly serious in their efforts to take the facts and edit, revise and redact them.

In that sense, Petri’s book operates as satire at the highest level. Even the title — “Important American Documents” — conjures archivists delicately handling sacred papers with white-gloved hands. It’s an image that contrasts nicely with the way Petri gleefully twists, grabs and reconfigures the past for her pleasure — and ours — in this godsend of a book.

Alexandra Petri’s US History

Important American Documents (I Made Up)

W.W. Norton. 326 pp. $27.95

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