The Local Voice

Richard Zacks Signing Chasing The Last Laugh

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Richard Zacks, bestselling author of The Pirate Hunter, Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York, and others, will be at Off Square Books on Thursday, May 19 at 5 pm to read from his latest book, Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour, a rich and lively account of how Mark Twain’s late-life adventures abroad help to save his family from financial ruin.

In 1894, Mark Twain was the highest paid author in America. By the end of 1895, due to a series of poor investments–e.g., buying a publishing house and putting his nephew in charge and backing James W. Paige’s pie-in-the-sky mechanical typesetter and the critical and commercial failures of his recent novels—he was not only dead broke, but neck-deep in debt. Twain’s wife, coal heiress Olivia “Livy” Langdon, took the setback particularly hard, believing “that business failure means disgrace.”

Twain vowed to his wife that he would pay back every single penny. So, at the ripe age of fifty-nine, when most literary icons would be telling jokes at fancy dinner parties, Twain embarked on a round-the-world stand-up comedy tour that would take him across the American West, across the Pacific to Australia, India, South Africa, and beyond. He was the first author to ever attempt such a tour. He picked his best stories and wove them into a ninety-minute performance which helped to drum up thousands of dollars to pay the creditors.

Richard Zacks thoroughly combed through the numerous notebooks Twain kept while on tour—which detailed his broad range of interests: “religious preferences in ant colonies, worst public floggings, the anonymity of executioners, the insecurities of God”—to produce his highly entertaining narrative. He depicts Twain as a “complicated, vibrant individual, and showcases the biting wit and skeptical observation that made him one of the greatest of all American writers.” 

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