At a time when a host of economic and social ills is causing many of us to contemplate a world beyond materialism and narcissism,Poor Richard's Lamentjuices up the process with an ever-building sense of moral urgency. Where to begin to sing the praises … see full wiki
Fitzgerald's interesting experiment in genre bending alternative history, "Christmas Carol" other-worldly visitations, and "It’s a Wonderful Life" second chances is alternately bad, good, and finally splits the difference. But this experiment (a pre-publication review-copy from a non-mainstream publisher) is an honorable and worthy effort.
We first meet the deceased Ben Franklin in his celestial chambers, and he is the hail, avuncular, epitaph-spouting founding father we all learned in school. But then the next 300 (of 600) pages seem an opportunity for Fitzgerald to turn an intense animus toward Franklin's popular (and populist) image into a long, repetitive, and ultimately tedious screed in the form of a Judgment Seat trial of Franklin's deeds in life, often diametrically opposed to his well-worn image and epitaph-ery. The imagery and purpose is sometimes confusing, but what is clear is the historian's berating of Franklin as a sanctimonious hypocrite whose unfeeling attitude toward his family caused an eternity of hurt for them and others--and possibly for himself as well.
But when Franklin is given his second chance, for a duration apparently only 24 hours--he and we are not told--and with a task to fulfill that again neither he nor we are told, the pace picks up and the animus is tucked away as we see Franklin living out his second chance with humility and grace. This second half of the book moves quickly, and the heavy sledding of the first half pays off, for Franklin and for us. Franklin reasons his way through the modern world he helped create, with a keen interest and quick understanding of the technologies and processes of the new world he's encountering. Franklin's new application of old epitaphs and creation of new ones are fit for the purpose, and his observations are sometimes profound, such as when he notes while he observes pedestrians crossing the street that inattentiveness can be deadly in this new age.
Not as fulfilling to me was the ending, Fitzgerald has woven Franklin's redemption journey into several separate, confusing but at the same time too-neatly intertwined present-day storylines, and the breathless back-cover marketing question "What if everything depended on it?" never really comes alive for me. I was confused by just how everything (other than his own redemption, which is vital enough for any individual!) depended on what Franklin did, and indeed on whether "everything" made it or not. The loose ends never got tied off clearly enough for me, and the imagery was too ambiguous to really leave me satisfied.
So, if you have an interest in Franklin's life and philosophy, or in alternative-history fiction, this is definitely worth a go; if you can stick with it through the first 300 pages, the second 300 will reward you. You may find yourself, as I did, asking how you would fare under the glare of a judgment on your life, and whether you would have the courage and humility to live it differently if given a second chance. In the end, perhaps this is the "everything" that was dependent on Franklin's response--and on mine in my own life.
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