A French no­ble­man is a win­dow into the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY TONY HOR­WITZ

The fu­ture Mar­quis de Lafayette was born in a me­dieval chateau and named Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gil­bert du Motier. He came from a long line of war­riors with a knack for dy­ing young in bat­tle. Or­phaned at 12, he was so rich and con­nected that he joined the royal guard at Ver­sailles and danced with Marie An­toinette.

Then, at just 19, this con­sum­mate sang bleu fled his monar­chial home­land (and his preg­nant wife) to gain mil­i­tary glory while sup­port­ing the repub­li­can rev­o­lu­tion in Amer­ica. By the age of 24, he’d be­come a her­alded gen­eral and a su­per­star in a land that has al­ways viewed the French with sus­pi­cion.

The young mar­quis’s ex­cel­lent ad­ven­ture in Amer­ica is the pu­ta­tive sub­ject of Sarah Vow­ell’s “Lafayette in the Some­what United States.” In re­al­ity, the mar­quis is a ve­hi­cle for a romp through the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War — the sort of lit­er­ary stunt that few but Vow­ell would at­tempt and come close to pulling off.

Like other Vow­ell works, this one blends travel, com­edy and a found-ob­ject ap­proach to his­tory. “I like to use what­ever’s ly­ing around to paint pic­tures of the past — tra­di­tional pig­ment like archival doc­u­ments but also the added tex­ture of what­ever bits and bobs I learn from look­ing out bus win­dows or chat­ting up peo­ple I bump into on the road.”

This pas­sage ap­pears dur­ing a char­ac­ter­is­tic episode: Tour­ing a Penn­syl­va­nia bat­tle­field, Vow­ell ends up at a Quaker meet­ing­house be­ing lec­tured about the evils of war. Vis­it­ing Val­ley Forge, she tells us that a lieu­tenant was “court-mar­tialed for sodomy” and lit­er­ally drummed out of camp. Later we learn of a din­ner Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton served his French al­lies, who were ap­palled that meat, sides and salad ar­rived as one course, on the same plate. “Were th­ese Amer­i­cans peo­ple or an­i­mals?” Vow­ell writes, chan­nel­ing Gal­lic dis­dain.

Vow­ell’s cheeky voice and quirky eye make this book a very brisk read — no mean feat, given that the war dragged on for eight years, across mul­ti­ple the­aters, with dozens of ma­jor play­ers. Her comic darts also punc­ture much of the pa­tri­otic bunk sur­round­ing that

era. Among those Vow­ell mocks is Thomas Jefferson, whom she por­trays as pen­ning lofty sen­tences as the Bri­tish in­vade. “Ba­si­cally, the gover­nor of Vir­ginia had thoughts on every­thing but how to arm and feed and re­in­force the sol­diers risk­ing their lives to save his state.”

Vow­ell’s ir­rev­er­ence ex­tends to her French pro­tag­o­nist, a head­strong, vain­glo­ri­ous youth with a fond­ness for flat­tery and self-drama. “Lafayette’s most an­noy­ing qual­i­ties,” Vow­ell writes, were “be­ing a sin­gle-minded suck-up prone to histri­onic cor­re­spon­dence.”

Yet he also showed great courage (he was wounded rush­ing into his first bat­tle) and an ex­u­ber­ance and ar­dor for the cause that en­deared him to Amer­i­cans. He quickly be­came one of Wash­ing­ton’s clos­est and most loyal aides, and a sur­ro­gate son. The mar­quis hugged and kissed the nor­mally aloof com­man­der, wrote him gushy let­ters and named his own son Ge­orges Wash­ing­ton Lafayette. The mar­quis be­came beloved of the pub­lic, too; when he re­turned as “the na­tion’s guest” in 1824, 80,000 New York­ers — al­most three-quar­ters of the city’s pop­u­la­tion — turned out to greet his ship.

Vow­ell writes that she was drawn to Lafayette upon learn­ing how renowned he once was in Amer­ica and how for­got­ten he’s be­come. She’s right; this un­likely French hero of our rev­o­lu­tion mer­its much more at­ten­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, the mar­quis also de­serves bet­ter than Vow­ell’s os­ten­si­ble trib­ute to him.

The prob­lem with her pas­tiche tech­nique is that the bits and bobs she col­lects are much stronger than the whole. The por­trait of Lafayette is patchy and the book’s con­nec­tive tis­sue thin. Vow­ell oc­ca­sion­ally raises over­ar­ch­ing themes, such as the cost of Amer­i­cans’ “hy­per­sen­si­tiv­ity about taxes,” from the rev­o­lu­tion on­ward. But each time she touches a big idea, she quickly drops it to re­sume her romp, which is too of­ten laden with off-putting slang and pop-cul­ture ref­er­ences.

Lafayette’s de­serted wife is “preg­gers” and “knocked-up.” The killing at one bat­tle leads to ham­burger cooked on “a Ge­orge Fore­man grill.” Bruce Wil­lis, Mr. Bean, Elvis, Fer­ris Bueller and oth­ers make need­less walk-ons. So do a gag­gle of wise­crack­ing friends and fam­ily who travel with Vow­ell. This forced hu­mor is am­pli­fied by the book’s cartoon draw­ings of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures. It’s as if Vow­ell doesn’t trust her re­search and comic tal­ent, or the in­tel­li­gence of her read­ers, and feels she needs to dumb down her shtick.

More’s the pity, be­cause when she hews to her his­tor­i­cal knit­ting, she shows great tal­ent for col­or­ful and telling quotes and anec­dotes. We learn, for in­stance, that the French called the Bri­tish “roast beefs,” that Euro­pean of­fi­cers flooded Amer­ica be­cause they’d been “down­sized af­ter the Seven Years’ War ended in 1763,” and that, ac­cord­ing to Jefferson, Lafayette’s “foible is a ca­nine ap­petite for pop­u­lar­ity.”

Vow­ell also of­fers keen in­sights about how we re­mem­ber the French and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary era. Arms, money and men poured across the At­lantic, and French sol­diers and sailors out­num­bered Amer­i­cans by about 4 to 1 at York­town, where Corn­wal­lis’s sur­ren­der ef­fec­tively ended the war. Yet we con­tinue to cel­e­brate July 4 as our rev­o­lu­tion, while pay­ing much less heed to the French-aided war that sealed the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence. “Jefferson’s pretty phrases were in­com­plete with­out the punc­tu­a­tion of French gun­pow­der,” Vow­ell writes.

She also notes the ironic fate of our al­lies. Royal aid to Amer­ica drained France’s cof­fers and con­trib­uted to rev­o­lu­tion­ary fer­vor at home. Lafayette, a no­ble­man and mod­er­ate, was forced into ex­ile and pri­son, while his in-laws went to the guil­lo­tine. And King Louis XVI be­lat­edly re­al­ized that “the Amer­i­can af­fair” had been a mis­take. “They took ad­van­tage of my youth, and to­day we are pay­ing the price for it.” That price ul­ti­mately in­cluded his head.

So when July 4 rolls around, raise a beer or a hot dog to Lafayette and his coun­try­men, with­out whom we might have re­mained Bri­tish sub­jects. Vive la France!

T.F. HEALY COL­LEC­TION VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The Mar­quis de Lafayette with Gen. Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton at Val­ley Forge, Pa., in an 1874 en­grav­ing.

TIM SLOAN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

A statue of the Mar­quis de Lafayette, once revered in Amer­ica, stands across the street from the White House.

By Sarah Vow­ell River­head. 274 pp. $27.95

LAFAYETTE IN THE SOME­WHAT UNITED STATES

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