Two on Twain: Book Review

Courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Girouk/Courtesy of Fantagraphics Books

Recalling the American master via a memoir by Hal Holbrook and an absurdist comedy.

Mark Twain is not only the most important author in American letters. During the past century, Twain himself -- the white suit, the cigar, the folksy advice -- has become an iconic character. Now, two new books -- one a memoir, the other a piece of comedy -- pick up the icon as the jumping-off point for their own stories.

Nobody has done more to shape our image of Twain than the actor Hal Holbrook (All the President's Men, Wall Street), who has been playing him in a one-man show longer than Samuel Clemens did -- 57 versus 47 years. Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30) covers just the first 35 years of Holbrook's life, from his truly Dickensian childhood -- abandoned by his parents, one for the stage and the other for an insane asylum, at age 2 -- to barnstorming across the country as a young actor. The really fascinating part covers the 15 years from college graduation to stardom playing Twain on Broadway and could be subtitled "the education of an actor and a man." Holbrook not only writes insightfully about learning the craft of acting and the work that went into creating Twain but also frankly about his ambitions and the toll they took on his family. "I see now I was a crippled figure. … My children. What a mess. I dropped the ball there … let them drift off to sea as I was fighting it out with Harold to find out who the hell he was." That kind of vigorous self-reflection should earn Harold a place on the bookshelf of any aspiring actor.

In Mark Twain's Autobiography 1910-2010, (Fantagraphics, $19.99), Adult Swim contributor and comics creator Michael Kupperman (Snake 'n' Bacon) reworks Holbrook's Twain as a Zelig-like immortal cruising through a century of life after his 1910 death. The story is told in three dozen short chapters, a few of which are illustrated comic book-style.

Some of the tales are hilarious koans of absurdist comedy -- Twain as the unknown fourth astronaut on the Apollo 11 mission is fabulous. Although it sometimes has the feel of a Saturday Night Live skit stretched into a feature film -- perfect in small doses but unsustainable over a longer haul -- the premise is too good to abandon.