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THE BROTHERS BOSWELL
By Philip Baruth
Soho, 2010 ($14.00)
Soho, 2009 ($24.00)
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
It is well-known that Samuel Johnson, who compiled the first English-language dictionary, and James Boswell, writer and diarist, were good friends. It is not as well-known that Boswell's family had a history of mental illness. Baruth takes that family history and builds a fictional version of the historic story that is entertaining and unique.
James Boswell began his hero-worship of Johnson when he was a teenager growing up in the historic heart of Edinburgh. His father, a prominent judge, brought home the hefty two-volume dictionary that would change the lives of the brothers Boswell forever because it was necessary for his profession. While the elder Boswell scorns the volumes and their creator because of what he sees as Johnson's insult to the Scots, his sons, James and John, fall in love with the weighty tomes, studying the pages for hours and playing their own dictionary game, using obscure words from its pages to insult each other for hours on end.
The story alternates between the Boswells' early life in Edinburgh, and London in 1762/1763. James, a dapper young dandy who has managed to banish all traces of his Scottish heritage from his speech, manages to meet and befriend his hero. Soon it becomes common to see the mismatched pair, the older Dr. Johnson, rotund, gruff, and quick to anger, and the trim, well-dressed and well-mannered young Boswell roaming the streets of London. The growing friendship of Johnson and Boswell is seen through the eyes of John Boswell, James' younger brother, who is quite mad and insanely jealous of his older brother. John, who has come to London after being hospitalized for mental illness for several months, is incensed that his brother refuses to admit him to the dazzling literary scene or introduce him to his famous friends. He concocts a plan to force James and Johnson to apologize, and if they refuse, he has a set of almost magical golden pistols to persuade them. He leads them on a merry chase through the mean, not to mention smelly and filthy, streets and alleyways of London in his quest to be acknowledged.
Baruth, whose last book, THE X-PRESIDENT, set in 2055, is a mixture of science fiction, politics, and time-travel centered around a 109-year-old Bill Clinton, has a vivid imagination and a keen grasp of life in 18th century England. He has taken a "what if" approach to turn a pedestrian story of a friendship between two historical figures into a ripping, fantastical yarn.
This review is based on the hardcover edition.
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