The characters of Kurt Andersen s Heyday (Random House, 622 pages, $26.95) have names like Priscilla Christmas and Truman Codwise and Skaggs and Duff and Bobo, and there s a prostitute with a heart of gold named Polly Lucking who is sister to Duff Lucking, an arsonist who, symbolically enough, is also a fireman with a screw loose who left Manhattan behind to take part in the Mexican War. Darwin (as in Charles) makes a cameo, enters stage left for a scene, reveals himself to suffer from congenital flatulence ( your farting friend Darwin, he s called), and exits in a cloud of nevermind.
The year is 1848, but Anderson is nothing if not cheeky. The action unfolds across a half-dozen countries and a pair of continents, and the real-life historical figures drop in like a 19th century edition of Us Weekly: Edgar Allen Poe delivers a lecture, Walt Whitman edits a newspaper. In addition, we brush against the Donner Party, and Robert E. Lee, and Friedrich Engels. Timothy Skaggs, a retired newspaper libeler obsessed with the American experiment, rubs shoulders with Abe Lincoln; and Benjamin Knowles, a young British aristocrat, who sails to New York on day dreams of vulgarity and strangeness, has some relation with Alexis de Tocqueville, but frankly, I can t remember what.
This thing is 600-plus pages.
But about that year.
In 1848 and you ll learn after reading Heyday, oh you definitely will, if you don t know now the Seneca Falls Convention convened and the fight for women s suffrage began; pro-democracy riots fanned across France; Darwin (flatulent or not) conceived his theory of evolution; the California Gold Rush began; and less significant, twilight had been rendered obsolete by the New York Gas Light Company but not insignificant if it s hard to imagine a New York that goes dark each night with the sunset.
Andersen masterful in this portrait of a Gangs of New York-era Manhattan with an air of the permanent carnival about it doesn t stop there. We learn the habits of the Maidu Indians, and the make-up of the cobblestones in lower Manhattan ( half shiny gray and half filthy black ). Commenting on the unreliability of mail in 1848, he reminds: No one in New York yet knew that two weeks before, the Austrian monarchy had ended press censorship, granted a constitution, and forced its chancellor, Prince Metternich Metternich, old Europe s presiding genius and tyrant to resign and leave Vienna. They had no idea that these events had in turn inspired crowds in Berlin to stage their...
You get the idea.
There s a story, it s a novel, there must be a story somewhere: Ben crosses the Atlantic, falls for Polly, loses Polly, joins Skaggs and Duff in following Polly across a buffalo-ridden, westward expansion, pre-Civil War America to a San Francisco bubbling over with gold fever. But the plot, as true of many a historical novel, is merely a device. In this case, it s an excuse for seeing a sprawling, rowdy country in its infancy, from coast to coast. After 300 pages of scrambling between a muddy New York and revolutionary Paris, and a fight with a stuffed penguin, and a Frenchman who twirls a mustache and seeks revenge on Ben only then does Manifest Destiny kick into play.
Needless to say, it s a trek.
But Heyday is also a cheerful Jackson Pollack of a historical novel, elegant when needed, rollicking and overstuffed the rest of the time, a hoot and a holler, and always splattery. And without question, it s the last book you d expect from Andersen, whose resume is a Zeitgeist-y media dream. He founded Spy magazine and edited New York magazine; his public radio show, Studio 360, is arguably the most thoughtful series about the arts in any medium, and his previous novel, Turn of the Century, was bold enough to insist it be considered the first important work of the new century and ambitious enough to follow through.
So why historical fiction?
Henry James wrote that historical fiction contained a fatal cheapness, and Gore Vidal once complained the historical novel gets so little respect it s considered neither history nor novel.
They re both right, of course.
You could line the shelves of every vacation cottage on the planet with the half-read historical paperbacks of the past four decades. English and Russian novelists, of course, have never had as hard a time telling a story while simultaneously recreating what it felt like to live through a moment in history (the job of historical fiction). We ve given the world Gore s Lincoln, and Michael Shaara s Killer Angels, and E. L. Doctrow s Ragtime, and the weight of a James Michener library. But in general, our best historical fiction is non-fiction the popular Devil in the White City, for instance that utilizes the techniques of great fiction.
There s a wormhole at work.
Andersen, too much the media-age creature not to be aware of the genre s pitfalls and criticisms, approaches historical fiction as if it were the Cannonball Run of the literary world a thin excuse to get a bunch of familiar ideas into one spot and have fun. You feel the outline of contemporary America transposed over 1848, but with such obviousness it reads like a winking parody of historical fiction: Characters run into poor blacks working on levees, there s criticism of the U.S. attack on Mexico as a speciously considered act of preemptive warfare, the soul-crushing heat of a Manhattan July sounds not a drip different than it does today.
Indeed, as much as it reads like historical fiction, the truer influence on Heyday is Charles Dickens, whose talent for loopy names and diverging story lines and thinly-disguised caricature has ensured his position as the most perpetually contemporary of authors. It s an audacious proposition, to aspire to Dickens, but there s Andersen, continually bringing up Dombey and Son and reminding us we re not imaging things a contemporary novelist does aspire to such things. He can fail, too, and he does, as much as he succeeds, but without ambition, Heyday says, there d be no country big enough, no ideas bold enough, to fill a book as nuts as Heyday.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6117.