'American Fun' very serious

AMERICAN FUN: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt. By John Beckman. Pantheon. 326 pages. $28.95.

I wish this book were more fun. It ought to be, with the dust cover displaying the "Fun" as spray-painted blue across the rest of the red-and-white page. The subtitle "Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt" sure makes it sound like this is going to be a romp.

But no:

"Ironically, in the age of aggressive realism, the age of pragmatism and science, when people had outgrown the mid-century gaslights of mystery, hoaxes, magic and romance, the humbug of commercialism reached its adulthood."

My God, Beckman is taking fun seriously. Sure, there's some smirking to be had in the antics of some of the not-your-standard historical figures depicted here. Mark Twain, for example, is a hoot as always, and Beckman gives you a bacchanal rendition of Twain's "Roughing It" days.

But "American Fun" reads like the academic work it is. Beckman sets up a conflict thesis at the start, the Plymouth Colony's way-too-stiff-at-the-collar William Bradford versus the bon vivant Thomas Morton and his free-love-and-liquor Merry Mount commune a few hills away. Then he pounds into the same framework figures from distinct eras across three centuries.

Some fit easier than others and there are a few points that leave the reader shaking his head and thinking, that's a reach. What it is is tale after tale of For Your Own Good Guys opposing Bawd Guys (and Dolls) just trying to have a good time:

"Over the course of four centuries, as if in pursuit of Thomas Morton's wild dream, Americans have rigged up delightful new ways of busting down barriers that keep them apart. ... And over the course of four centuries in the spirit of William Bradford, some of the nation's most authoritarian citizens have marveled at America's lust for freedom."

Suitably enough, the melange ends up in mosh pits. We'll just leave it to Abbie Hoffman to put the whole works in context:

"At the end of the (1969 Chicago Seven) trial, when five defendants were convicted of major charges, Abbie Hoffman, one of the guilty parties, addressed his statement to the forefathers pictured above the (judge's) bench. 'I know those guys on the wall,' " he said. "They grew up 20 miles from my home in Massachusetts. I played with Sam Adams on the Concord Bridge. I was there when Paul Revere rode up on his motorcycle and said, 'Pigs are coming.' "

There you have it. Plenty of people yuck it up in American Fun. But for Beckman, the fun is no frolic.

Reviewer Bo Petersen is a reporter with The Post and Courier.