Monday, March 19, 2007

Heyday, by Kurt Andersen

heyday n. The period of greatest popularity, success,
fashion, power, or the like; prime.
interjection Archaic. (used as an exclamation of

cheerfulness, surprise, wonder, etc.)

Kurt Andersen's first book The Real Thing, was a collection of humorous essays, published in 1980. It's still funny, I still read it, I still quote it. If it wouldn't interrupt the flow of this narrative too extremely, I would whip out one of the essays and quote it in its entirety, right here. (*Pause while I peruse the book, debate which essay is the "real thing" of Real Thing essays, and talk myself out of quoting it here.*) You would laugh. But the world has moved on since 1980 and many of the cultural references are now defunct.

Andersen's second book was published in 1999: Turn of the Century. It was a novel about the future--the immediate future--as in: look out, this is what your world is about to become. It was clever and engaging, but somewhat doomed to be quaint as soon as the time period came and went.

And now, the third book has arrived, a large, ambitious historical novel. This one will not be dated anytime soon. Heyday is an enthusiastic, meticulously researched story set against the backdrop of two amazing years in a remarkable country: 1848-49, the United States of America. The reader gets a front row seat and is offered various viewpoints: English, American, French, male, female, upper class, working class, conservative, revolutionary. Andersen lets the tide of history sweep his fictional characters along, and they periodically bump up against actual historical personnages: Frederick Engels, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Dickens, Allan Pinkerton. The big events that shape the history of America also have an immediate impact on these individual people; e.g., last week the telegraph line from New York to Chicago wasn't completed, but this week it is. That changes everything.

Because the research was done so well, the reader is breathless to see what happens next even though it is history, since many of the events and characteristics of the 19th century have faded into oblivion for those of us living in the fast-paced 21st. Who knew, for instance, that early busses in New York City, pulled by horses, had a primitive version of the system used today to signal the driver--a leather strap that the passenger was threaded along the side of the bus, up to the driver where it was fastened around his ankle, so that when the passenger pulled it, he felt it and knew to stop the vehicle.

America is a character in this novel, and so is the American language. A new word crops up at every turn. It's always surprising. Either it is a word that we use every day and take for granted that it has always existed--sidewalk, OK, metropolis--or it's phraseology that we never use because it came into existence and then vanished from the collective vocabulary before we were born--picky wicky, black house, aspirationalism. Either way, the interjection of the words lights up the narrative like sequins on a dress--they are almost distracting, but in the end I can't imagine the book without them. One of the characters keeps a word journal, just in case you are in danger of missing the importance of language to the story.

A novel that tackles the big themes--war, human rights, guilt, sex, revenge, insanity, utopia--with enthusiasm and wit, Heyday illustrates ideas whose relevance is extreme even today:

At the next pier upriver from Polly and Priscilla, a cattle boat was docking, and the animals were skittish, pawing at the deck and lowing. They were frighted by the July Fourth ruckus, but unaware of the slaughterhouse knives that would actually kill them before sunset. We're right to be scared, Polly thought, but in our ignorance, we're scared of the wrong things.
p. 327

In fact, the overarching theme of the book might arguably be that if we don't learn from history we are doomed to repeat it. The parallels between the Mexican War and our present conflict in Iraq are heartbreaking. Lincoln is quoted as as a freshman Congressman, "[daring] to call President Polk's prophylactic invasion unnecessary and unconstitutional and 'half insane.'" But this is not a political novel with an axe to grind. Essentially it is a portrait of a young nation full of energy, vision, and possibility, plunging heedlessly into an unknowable future, and glorying in--yes--its heyday.


Don't take my word for it. The New York Times has an effusive review by Geoffrey Wolff. This is my version of "distributed journalism." After you've slogged through my amateur review, I help you find the professional version. You're welcome.


Anonymous said...

(copied from Achenblog)

For some inexplicable reason, I can't make comments to Blogger from work, so if I don't get by later, kb, here is my review of your review:

I love the old Spy magazine and Kurt Andersen, but I have lost my taste for these research packed historical novels. Perhaps it was too much bad Michener in my youth, but I spend all my time wondering how the author knew that and what his sources were.

I prefer to read novels of that time and marvel at the things that get taken for granted and accepted as perfectly normal. Updike's Rabbit novels are amazing pop-cultural time capsules because they were written as contemporary novels,even if he does get some of the details wrong.


Karen said...

yellojkt, You bring up an excellent point, because the type of person who is going to read this book is generally going to have this type of attitude.

I tolerate the historical details supplied by Andersen because I trust him, based on his record with Spy and because I know how smart and how meticulous he is.

Otherwise, I usually agree with you about this. Historical novels are irritating. I consciously suspended my skepticism for this one. I did look for a bibliography at the end of Heyday and was disappointed that he only specified a couple of sources.

Interesting point about Michener and Updike, too, but I have generally been more interested in reading books by people who do not take their context for granted--Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Vonnegut, Edith Wharton, George Eliot--they are very conscious of their culture and write novels that criticize the status quo, so that even their contemporary readers get shaken up and look at their surroundings with a new perspective. I don't think Updike does that, so much--it seems like his novels are more about individuals, not so much about the larger culture.