(2 of 2)
But just when you've heard enough about the deplorable Countess, Twain lights out for more entertaining territory, until the book is once more like a paddle wheeler going merrily, merrily, merrily down his bubbly stream of consciousness, with Twain cracking jokes, settling scores and offering acidic appraisals of publishers he thinks have cheated him. That's how we know that the wonderfully named Hartford E. Bliss was "a tall, lean, skinny, yellow, toothless, bald-headed, rat-eyed professional liar and scoundrel."
The darker side of Twain's nature comes back out to play when he talks about people like the rogue financier Jay Gould. "The mightiest disaster which has ever befallen this country," he calls him. "The people had desired money before his day, but he taught them to fall down and worship it." But what really gets steam coming out of his ears is a 1906 massacre of rebellious Philippine tribesmen and their families by American forces, who trapped them in a crater and rained artillery and gunfire down from the heights for days. "The enemy numbered six hundred," he writes, "including women and children and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother."
All the same, in this first volume, Twain is in outrage mode only occasionally. Some of the book's best moments are the work of a much gentler and more wistful nature. His remembrances of childhood days on his uncle's farm in Missouri are Twain in a more lyrical mood. ("I can call back the prairie, and its loneliness and peace, and a vast hawk hanging motionless in the sky, with his wings spread wide and the blue of the vault showing through the fringe of their end-feathers ..."). He also writes movingly of his daughter Susy, who was just 24 when she died suddenly of meningitis in 1896. ("It is one of the mysteries of our nature," he notes, "that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunderstroke like that and live.") For much of the latter part of Volume I, Twain excerpts short passages from a biography about him that she composed at age 13, each followed by the recollections her words set off in him all these years later, a poignant call-and-response that deepens the intricate architecture of his story. A question she once asked about life "What is it all for?" becomes a melancholy motif of the book.
The editors have decided to end this first volume with Twain's reflections on Helen Keller, whom he first met around 1894, her warmth and intelligence captivating him. They could just as well have closed after any chapter at all in a life being told every which way. This catch-as-catch-can construction may not make for the best way to grasp the chronology of Twain's life, but for that, there are fine biographies by Justin Kaplan and Ron Powers. As a way to get inside his pinwheeling, glittering and volcanic mind, it could hardly be better.
This article originally appeared in the November 22, 2010 issue of TIME.