I write non-fiction for the simple reason that I cannot write fiction as unique and perfectly rendered as Tom Fitzgerald’s Poor Richard’s Lament.
The premise of the story is that Benjamin Franklin has spent 200 years since his death in one room in the Plantation of the Unrepentant. Now, at last he is getting his day in Celestial Court. At first, Ben is confident. After all, he was a great and admired man in his time, an author, diplomat, inventor, Founding Father and all-around genius.
But Ben must stand court for all of his actions, not just the good, and it soon becomes clear to both him and the reader that Franklin was not always the good man he aspired to be. In fact, he fell very short in many ways, particularly in his family relations and in the actions he was willing to take for the sake of expediency. It is a grueling, sometimes tragic but often funny trial.
In the end, Ben is sentenced to return to earth for one day in modern times and make recompense by literally saving everything. “The fate of all is in thy hands,” he is told.
Yet in his wanderings through modern-day Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, Ben seems to encounter only random people and participate in events that have no immediate connection. What can a man who lost his job, a panhandler, an ex-junkie, a mentally troubled lady who sings in a subway, a black teenager, and other assorted characters have to do with fate?
By the end of the book, however, we learn that indeed, everything is connected and “the circle is the only geometry.”
Poor Richard’s Lament is not an easy book to read. The language, while beautiful, requires attention. Ben speaks as he would have spoken, in an old-fashioned manner, and he offers aphorisms so similar to those he actually published that it is hard to remember that Fitzgerald is making many of these up. But the person who undertakes a 600-page historical fantasy about Benjamin Franklin in the first place is not easily cowed and will find that, when they come to the end of this book, their time has been well-spent.
Fitzgerald’s book is a masterpiece on a number of levels. You will feel that you know Ben Franklin well at the end of it, and you will agree that it is, indeed, “a most timely tale.”