Saturday, September 15, 2007
This Week's Book Report
Heyday (Random House $26.95) is Kurt Andersen’s long, ambitious, and adventurous novel about that annus mirabilis, 1848. In that year, the United States won its war of aggression against Mexico, revolutions swept Europe, The Communist Manifesto was published, and gold was discovered in California. In this sweep of history, we meet four young people. Ben Knowles is a privileged Englishman, who immigrates to the United States after witnessing the upheaval in Paris early in that year. In New York he promptly falls in love with the actress (and sometimes prostitute) Polly Lucking, and meets her brother Duff, a scarred and troubled Mexican War veteran, and their friend, the cynical Romantic, Timothy Skaggs, once a journalist and now a Daguerretypist.
The plot is simple enough. Boy meets girl, boy wins girl, boy loses girl. Along the way, we meet Walt Whitman, Charles Darwin and Alexis de Tocqueville, among others. We travel from Paris to London, to America and its breadth, encountering the immediate West and beyond to Gold Rush California. There are Utopian communities, rides down the Mississippi, Indians, Mormons, abolitionists, all that mid-Nineteenth century America had to offer. And all the while, Ben is pursued by the French gendarme who blames Ben for the death of the gendarme’s younger brother.
Andersen writes with verve, humor and sympathy for his characters, and that sprawling place we call home. Needless to say that the themes he works on here are the same themes we deal with today. The book is a rich extravaganza in story and ideas. I highly recommend it. It is available at Jackson Street Books and other fine independent bookstores.
Many of you will know Kurt Andersen as the host of the PRI arts and culture program Studio 360. Or you may also know him as the editor and co-founder of Spy magazine. His previous novel is entitled Turn of the Century (Delta $14.95).