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The following review appeared 14 September 2010 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2010 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
At first blush, this work by Mark Twain seems an unlikely candidate for an audio book narration. It's stagy, and the complicated heavy plotting sags under its own weight (it was salvaged out of a failed play, after all). It comprises a sort of distant sequel to Twain's first novel, The Gilded Age, itself one of Twain's weaker works of art (not all the fault of his co-author, Charles Dudley Warner). But it's also freighted with more dialogue than any other novel by Twain, and when that dialogue is brought to life by a seasoned stage actor like Richard Henzel, this otherwise forgettable tale springs to life.
Richard Henzel is probably best-known for his voice-overs as the two radio DJs in the movie "Groundhog Day" where he woke up Bill Murray over and over with "Rise and shine, campers!" But he's been performing as a Mark Twain impersonator since 1967, performing that role more than a thousand times, and he has more than one hundred television, stage, and film credits. Henzel has previously produced audio books of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and other Mark Twain stories. The characters and situations in this novel require even more versatility than these previous audios and Henzel is perfectly matched to the task at hand.
Dialogue comprises more than 50% of the text of The American Claimant, more than any other Twain novel with the possible exception of The Gilded Age (Twain's chapters are more than 50% dialogue; Warner's are less). Twain's other novels contain far less dialogue, ranging from 28% A Connecticut Yankee) to 41% (Tom Sawyer Abroad).* So, while it's important that Henzel's narrative voice is a pleasant Twainian timbre without actually trying to be a Twain impersonation, it is his handling of the dialogue which becomes even more important as the listener prepares for more than seven hours of listening. Lucky listener. Henzel's accents for the English characters are spot on, old boy, I must say. An' by golly I do declayah that sweet Sally sounds fluttery, and swoony, and oh so-suth'run. The assortment of boarders around the table at the boarding house sound like boarders babbling at a dinner table. Colonel Mulberry Sellers sounds just as loopy as any reader might ever have imagined him, and Hawkins's voice is so distinctive and reeking with earnest cluelessness that the listener looks forward to appearances in the story by this simpering fool, no matter what he happens to be saying.
All of this combines to make this novel a better listening experience than a reading experience. The very funny moments in the text that read best blossom into hilariously funny scenes when heard aloud. These better moments are usually a result of the confused identities that are sprinkled into the plot. Colonel Sellers mistakenly thinks that Berkeley (the son of the real Earl who comes to America to renounce his father's title and live as a commoner by his wits alone) was killed in a hotel fire and has collected what he thinks are Berkeley's ashes. At one point in the story Sellers considers sending back Berkeley's ashes to his father in several parcels over a period of time--so as to break the news gently. Read this if you wish, but hearing Sellers carefully thinking out his plans on what to do with those ashes is grand. When Sellers and Hawkins decide to materialize the dead to create a work-force of zombies (I did mention the plot is complicated) the real confusions begin and almost every scene from that point on involving Sellers or Hawkins or Berkeley becomes grist for the humor mill, and all of these scenes are more fun to hear than to read.
Finally, this audio book raises an intriguing question. Twain was always trying out new inventions and contrivances, and with this novel may have become the first writer to use voice recordings to dictate a novel. Accounts vary, but Twain recorded as few as three dozen or as many as one hundred wax cylinders with his dictations, and this perhaps accounts for why there is so much dialogue. At the time Twain was dictating this work wax cylinders held about two minutes of sound (four minute cylinders did not appear until later) and an estimate that he produced one to three hours of recordings seems reasonable. Reading the text does not readily disclose which portions of this work might have been dictated, and I'm sad to report that listening to this audio book provides no clues either. This may simply reflect the fact that Twain wrote as well as he spoke (and vice versa), or it may be that he discarded his recordings and started over writing everything out without them, or perhaps a listener with a better ear for such things might make a discovery.
Twain's experiments with dictation did not begin and end with The American Claimant. He later dictated letters and portions of his autobiography, but he gave up using wax cylinders. His recordings of The American Claimant are long gone, but this lively reincarnation is surely the next best thing.
*The reviewer is indebted to Kent Rasmussen for his statistical
report on the percentages of dialogue in Twain's novels. For those interested,
the approximate breakdowns for the other novels are Adventures of Tom Sawyer
(31%), The Prince and the Pauper (35%), Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn (40%), and The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (40%).