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Nonfiction in Brief

DAVE BARRY SLEPT HERE A Sort of History of the United States by Dave Barry (Random House: $15.95; 180 pp.)

June 11, 1989|SONJA BOLLE

Columnist Dave Barry turns his formidable wit to the subject of American history, with a result reminiscent of the Reduced Shakespeare Company: The better you know the original, the funnier it gets.

Barry spoofs the dry-as-dust textbook style with such devices as "reconstructed conversations," dates galore (for simplicity's sake, however, all dates are given as October 8), absurd footnotes (the note for one quoted expert reads: "A friend of ours. You don't know him.") and ridiculous discussion questions ("Whatever happened to the Hessians anyway? You never see them around.") The narrative is interrupted by an "Educational Advisory Alert" from the academic powers that be, warning that unless women and minorities are represented, "this book will not be approved for purchase by public school systems in absolutely vast quantities." The text subsequently provides the typically obsequious but utterly irrelevant asides on the contributions of minorities and women.

Imaginative though his skewed historical facts are, Barry's best moments depend on his lampoons of today's gripes, conceits, silly euphemisms and fashions. "Just when the Jamestown colonists were about to give up," he writes, "they came up with a promising new product concept: tobacco." The colonists' taxation problems turn on the complexity of the tax forms; the temporary British solution is to offer toll-free passage to England to consult with Tax Assistors. As the revolution approaches, the rebels are naturally referred to as "freedom-loving colonists."

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