A fascinating analysis of the quest for fame, the book compiles well-researched biographies of folks like Ephraim Bull of Concord, Mass., a horticulturist who invented the Concord grape, which he thought would revitalize the American wine industry. Sadly, the grape was easily duplicated by other farmers, including Artimus Welch, who turned Bull's precious seedling into a grape juice conglomerate. Or consider the discouraging tale of John Banvard, "possibly the first millionaire artist in history." Banvard's spectacular, three-mile-long painting of the Mississippi River, which he mounted on a giant spool that he would unwind during his lectures, was the talk of the town back in the 1830s. He met his downfall when he went head-to-head with P.T. Barnum by opening an oddities museum in Manhattan, which quickly went bankrupt.
A self-described "collector of obscurity," Collins is yet another one of those quirky contributors to McSweeney's; he employs a writing style that's wry though good-natured. Instead of poking fun at these mavericks, Collins recognizes their collective desire for immortality and gives them a taste of it. My hat's off to these daring gamblers, who took a risk and lost.