At a recent, small gathering at a hushed, private supper club, screenwriter and novelist Paul Lussier celebrated his first novel, The Last Refuge of Scoundrels. He made a fascinating, impromptu speech about how the true American Revolution of the 1770s was carried out not by our Founding Fathers, but by cross-dressers, queers, and whores.
Some folks in the audience grumbled at these ideas. But The Last Refuge of Scoundrels is an attempt to throw out the old notions of America's beginnings. It recants history in a decidedly revisionist mold; centering its story around a pair of impoverished lovers, who are part of a people's movement seeking to rise against tyranny and overcome the Founding Fathers' corruption. According to Lussier, the imagery we Americans keep in our collective heads--of wise, freedom-seeking Colonial leaders Franklin, Hancock, et. al--is sheer myth, or only part of the story at best.
Instead, he points out, the Declaration of Independence gang really consisted of a few wealthy men out to protect their financial interests. "I absolutely don't believe the Founding Fathers were great men," Lussier explained at the talk. "They were average men who did some good things. Also selfish, stupid things. Once you blow the dust off the War of Independence and see the truly revolutionary impulses of the people who fought, you learn our country owes its freedom to a rebellious spirit that was written out of history by the founding fathers."
Most entertaining of all was the hilarious way Lussier depicted the Founding Fathers through a contemporary psychoanalytic lens. It's a technique that history books don't often employ. "George Washington was completely neurotic," Lussier offered with a completely straight face, describing how the country's first president would keep several hickory nuts clenched in his hand, squeezing and cracking them to relieve his anxiety and stress.
The novel, which takes its title from Samuel Johnson's remark that "patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels," sets out to debunk those cherry tree-type legends that, Lussier says, conceal the true history of the Revolution, and, by extrapolation, present-day struggles between the people and government. The book begins on George Washington's deathbed, then skips back in time, tracing the events that led to the war.
Deborah Sampson (a prostitute who really existed) and John Lawrence (the estranged son of a wealthy merchant) tumble into a fomenting common-folk revolution, at odds with the goings-on orchestrated by Hancock, Adams, and company, in scenes that depict the Founding Fathers as being most interested in maintaining their fine gentleman's lives in the Colonies. Deborah dresses as a man so she can move about more freely, and the novel's heroes are able to find the pulse of the young country's culture, a "burgeoning American consciousness" that's fiercely opposed to tyranny.
As they lead the guerrilla war in the fields and the streets, we see events like the Boston Tea Party for the bad public relations gimmicks that Lussier believes they were. Of course, cynicism and all forms of suspicion about white men are very cheap and easy to come by these days. But Lussier's spin does not seem bandwagonish, reactionary, or unthinking--it makes sense. Last Refuge's language and dialogue is completely contemporary, a choice that was rather dislocating for me, and its narrative and language are less strong than its visual/cinematic-like attributes (a film version of the book is in development with Warner).
But it's the novel's questioning, revisionist mission that makes it valuable, and this book is a nice object to own, since its narrative shape was sculpted from the impulse to reject corruption and the politically driven histories passed down to us. And in a culture that doesn't like to validate voices of dissent, this book is a nice achievement. "The alternative history is there," as Lussier said. "I went to the old stories for my research--the letters of midwives, slaves, and farmers. I wanted this book to belong to the politics of the streets, not the politics of libraries and museums. I wanted to create a story that would change the old views of history."