Monday, December 13, 2010

Kurt Andersen's "Heyday": Book Review

1848: "What kind of fool celebrates the vanquishing of Mexicans at ten and the freedom of the French at midnight?" (148) "An American fool."

Andersen's sixteen months, from that April past August 1849, span a Paris uprising, Darwin's discovery, London gentry, Marx & Engels' manifesto, that Mexican War, the Gold Rush, New York conflagrations, the rise of photography, bordellos, arson, and Manifest Destiny. As with his millennial romp, "Turn of the Century," Andersen loves New York City, as he celebrates its rich variety of characters, slang, and customs. What he adds to "Heyday": a novel of adventure that skips lightly over the fresh ideas and social transformations that challenge its three protagonists. Ben Knowles arrives from England, soon falls for Polly (an actress-model-whatever in a much later slang term) and follows her and her brother, Duff, a Mexican War veteran with secrets only half-hidden. Accompanied by Timothy Skaggs, an enterprising jack-of-some-trades, Ben joins the trio as they deal with love and death and surprise.

This picaresque narrative takes awhile to leave Manhattan. It does not lag, but it does take its time in the city, soaking up its atmosphere and allowing scoundrels to skulk and thicken the plot. Coincidences abound. These do give, however, a mid-19th c. air to the enterprise, and it's enjoyable to see neologisms and slang enter the lexicon as it's spoken, mainly by Skaggs. The air is also somewhat melodramatic, but it does recall Dickens inevitably in its fascination with the clash of cultures, philosophies, and accents. Andersen keeps the story moving. He rarely stops for set-pieces or editorializing, keeping the point-of-view moving between his three characters and also their pursuer. This can be dizzying; months pass for the protagonists in NYC, but a journey westwards by way of Panama passes in a blink.

But, symbols do work well, enriching the plot now and then. A house in upstate New York is being moved from its foundations onto a wagon so a railroad can be built. "As the house began to move forward, pulled by more oxen than it seemed possible to harness together, its chimneys crumbled and fell to the ground." (360)

Around pg. 350 of 620 pp., the trio leave for a transcontinental journey. I will not spoil the suspense, for it does build as this section commences. Polly wonders why not go all the way, past their original Middle Western goal, to the Pacific Coast. "Why should we not proceed to a wholly new place? A place far beyond what 'is,' beyond the Mormons and the anti-Mormons, beyond the priests, beyond the upper-ten snobs and the revolutionist shouters, beyond the Whigs and the Democrats, beyond 'this' world, a place of plenty where we might fashion our own world." (247)

Throughout the novel, the restlessness and the excitement of this age recalls our own giddy sensations from political chicanery, imperial conflict, technological inventions, fads and fashions, and the passing buzzwords and neologisms. Capitalism makes, if for a season, California as a place where neither rich nor poor live, only those looking for gold in a fresh, levelled playing field; Marx and Darwin contend with DeTocqueville in struggling to describe a world remade and renewed and seen anew. Andersen captures well in his protagonists this fleeting glimpse of wonder.

"Kings overthrown overnight, the nation ribboned with rails and telegraph wire by the day, California conquered and turned into a gold mine, their own settled lives in New York and London abandoned in a flash...According to Skaggs's theory, they now 'expected' outlandish surprise and speed and high adventure-- even needed them, as people acquire a taste for spiced food or drugs. 'Perhaps the quiet meandering and murk of ordinary life,' Skaggs said, 'is now too ordinary for the likes of us. We've been spoiled.'" (512) (Posted 1-19-10 on Amazon US.)

No comments: