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Heyday: A Novelby Kurt Andersen
Synopses & Reviews
Heyday is a brilliantly imagined, wildly entertaining tale of America's boisterous coming of age — a sweeping panorama of madcap rebellion and overnight fortunes, palaces and brothels, murder and revenge — as well as the story of a handful of unforgettable characters discovering the nature of freedom, loyalty, friendship, and true love.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, modern life is being born: the mind-boggling marvels of photography, the telegraph, and railroads; a flood of show business spectacles and newspapers; rampant sex and drugs and drink (and moral crusades against all three); Wall Street awash with money; and giddy utopian visions everywhere. Then, during a single amazing month at the beginning of 1848, history lurches: America wins its war of manifest destiny against Mexico, gold is discovered in northern California, and revolutions sweep across Europe — sending one eager English gentleman off on an epic transatlantic adventure...
Amid the tumult, aristocratic Benjamin Knowles impulsively abandons the Old World to reinvent himself in New York, where he finds himself embraced by three restless young Americans: Timothy Skaggs, muckraking journalist, daguerreotypist, pleasure-seeker, stargazer; the fireman Duff Lucking, a sweet but dangerously damaged veteran of the Mexican War; and Duff's dazzling sister Polly Lucking, a strong-minded, free thinking actress (and discreet part-time prostitute) with whom Ben falls hopelessly in love.
Beckoned by the frontier, new beginnings, and the prospects of the California Gold Rush, all four set out on a transcontinental race west — relentlessly tracked, unbeknownst to them, by a cold-blooded killer bent on revenge.
A fresh, impeccable portrait of an era startlingly reminiscent of our own times, Heyday is by turns tragic and funny and sublime, filled with bona fide heroes and lost souls, visionaries (Walt Whitman, Charles Darwin, Alexis de Tocqueville) and monsters, expanding horizons and narrow escapes. It is also an affecting story of four people passionately chasing their American dreams at a time when America herself was still being dreamed up — an enthralling, old-fashioned yarn interwoven with a bracingly modern novel of ideas.
"This historical novel may surprise readers who know Kurt Andersen as the cofounder of Spy magazine and the author of the wise and acerbic Turn of the Century (1999). It's set in the mid-19th century, for one thing, and not — at least not ostensibly — about media or celebrity. Benjamin Knowles is a young Englishman infatuated with all things American, including and especially the part-time actress/part-time prostitute Polly Lucking, whom he meets on his first passage to New York. Just as Knowles and Polly are about to go public with their love, Knowles does that boy-thing — i.e., says something stupid — and she flees New York. It's worth getting through the slowish beginning to arrive at the delightful, intelligent last two-thirds of this long novel when Knowles teams up with Polly's damaged brother, Duff, and family friend, Timothy Scaggs, a journalist of sorts, in a trek west in search of the freethinking Ms. Lucking, with a murderer just behind them (it's a subplot). Andersen's second novel is more than just a love story or a history lesson (though there are details included that make it clear how much research Andersen did); it's a true novel of ideas. The group visits a 19th-century health farm/cult, for example. The occasional historical figure — e.g., Charles Darwin — makes an appearance as well. There are shades of T.C. Boyle's The Road to Wellville, as well as aspirations toward E.L. Doctorow. But in the end, this second novel belongs to Andersen, a tale of bright, rambunctious, aspiring young people. Like them, the book is rowdy, knowing — and wholly American." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Sooner or later, every novelist in Washington, having divulged his trade at some drink-laden function, will learn, if he hasn't already, that a significant chunk of this city considers novels a grand waste of time. Because they're made up, for God's sake! The upholders of truth very occasionally will open the door just a crack to let in historical fiction — but only because it allows... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) them to do what they consider most essential in reading: harvest facts. And more facts. These Gradgrinds are consequently the ideal audience for Kurt Andersen's 'Heyday,' a book so relentlessly pedagogical that, for long stretches, you can forget you're reading anything so base as fiction. Over the course of its 600-plus pages, the diligent reader can acquire such 19th-century arcana as the contents of a brothel's prophylactics cabinet, the time-zone difference between Buffalo and Detroit, the number of steerage passengers on a standard transatlantic vessel, and the scarification rituals of Maidu Indians. Above all, the reader will glean a full month's salary of facts about New York City. Not the wireless modern metropolis that figured in Andersen's previous novel 'Turn of the Century,' but the much earthier 1848 version, where designated 'pizzle-holders' assist gentlemen with their urination, and aborted fetuses are consumed by the local hog population, and the dining saloons of the Astor House proudly serve calf's head in brain sauce. Indeed, this 'stinking, skimble-skamble' town is so much to Andersen's liking (and, God knows, it's alluring) that he whiles away roughly 300 pages there before he even bothers to set his main plot in motion — or, for that matter, get all his principals in the same room. Better late than never: Ben Knowles, a 26-year-old baronet's son who travels from Britain to America 'craving vulgarity and strangeness.' Timothy Skaggs, a daguerrean and journalist but, more to the book's purposes, an acid commentator on America's 'great experiment.' Duff Lucking, a Mexican War veteran, physically and psychically scarred, and an arsonist who, in true symbiotic fashion, works with local engine companies to put out the blazes he himself started. And then there's Duff's adored sister, Polly, a rising actress (about to star in the stage version of 'Dombey and Son') and a thoroughly modern Millie: In the midst of entertaining gentlemen at Mrs. Stanhope's brothel, she nurtures dreams of socialist bliss. When events force her hand, she travels westward seeking her Arcadia. Duff, Skaggs and the besotted Ben follow, and the second half of the book tracks them through 'the heart of our national bedlam,' bouncing from one visionary community to the next. Until Polly reaches the following epiphany: '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.' California, for want of a better word. Unfortunately, this promised land has already been transformed by a chance discovery in the American River Valley. 'Gold by the ton, gold sand and gold pebbles and hefty gold rocks, glittering in the water and dirt and all free for the grabbing by anyone with the luck or pluck to get himself to the California hills right now.' Andersen's story at last kicks into life, and so does his true theme: the quintessentially American tension between Utopia and El Dorado. Even as they wrestle with that dialectic, the pilgrims of 'Heyday' are being (implausibly) pursued by the Old World: a murderous French municipal guard officer who blames his brother's accidental death on Ben and is now tracking the 'English demon' as if he were 'a panicking boar in the swelter of a Corsican August.' As harassment goes, that's nothing next to the real-life historical figures who insist on horning in: George McClellan, Robert E. Lee, Kit Carson, John Fremont, the Donner party. Skaggs, in his peripatetic career, has already met Frederick Douglass, covered Abraham Lincoln and witnessed the death throes of Joseph Smith. Ben, in addition to reading philosophy with Prince Albert, is related to Tocqueville and, at one overtly symbolic juncture, receives missives from both Friedrich Engels and Charles Darwin (who, in a not-uncharacteristic Andersen touch, enters the book farting). How could any fictional being escape such a web of determinism? At every signpost, Andersen ensures that his creations are doing exactly what Encyclopaedia Britannica would have them do: listening to a new piece by Johann Strauss, dancing quicksteps and quadrilles, reading 'Omoo' and 'Vanity Fair' and 'The Communist Manifesto.' Even the simplest exchanges are primed to edify: 'Ben looked at Ashby. "Saxophones?" '"An hilarious new horn," Ashby explained, "invented by a Monsieur Sax."' One more fact duly registered. Two more characters becoming less real. Nor do they turn appreciably more human when they serve as mouthpieces for Andersen's insights: 'I've just realized now that (Newton's Third Law of Motion) explains the political events of this past year as well. ... "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." You see? A season of revolution, a season of counter-revolution.' One could argue that any historical novel blossoms or withers between the dueling imperatives of telling a story and re-creating a lost age. That's why Henry James believed the whole genre was condemned to 'a fatal cheapness.' 'You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures, and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like — the real thing is almost impossible to do,' he wrote. Yes. But to the right of my computer sits (by way of random example) Sarah Waters' 'Fingersmith,' which so potently tells its story and evokes its Victorian period that it achieves what James thought such a novel couldn't: a 'palpable present-intimate.' By contrast, 'Heyday' reads, as Ben Knowles himself describes it, 'like an account in a history book.' Surely that's not how history is actually experienced, in the living of it. Surely every novelist must, at some crucial point in his book's genesis, commit the rash, the almost suicidal act of throwing out his research." Reviewed by Louis Bayard, whose 'The Pale Blue Eye' has been nominated for an Edgar Award for best mystery novel, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"If its ripping plot twists don't hook you...then you're bound to be snared by the scads of riveting historical details Andersen artfully dollops onto every page....It'll be just as enjoyable in 150 years as it is today. (Grade: A)" Entertainment Weekly
"Heyday is fuled by manic energy, fanatical research, and a wicked sense of humor....It's a joyful, wild gallop through a joyful, wild time to be an American." Vanity Fair
"In this utterly engaging novel, the author...brings 19th-century America vividly to life....While this is a long book, it moves quickly, with historical detail that's involving but never a drag on the action; the characters are beautifully drawn. A terrific book; highly recommended." Library Journal
"Although the amount of irrelevant historical detail overwhelms the plot, this overstuffed parody of a Victorian novel makes some serious points: it succeeds in exposing the peculiarities and ridiculousness of nineteenth-century society — and contemporary reverence for it." Booklist
"The present-day resonance of Heyday can be witty....But the weight of its factoids and conversation-piece data keep it anchored in its own particular moment." Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"Andersen's novel is a major historical work, of lore and wisdom, irony and humor — the kind of historical novel that has always been the most satisfying to read." Los Angeles Times
"Andersen has researched his material well enough to be at home with it, and the seams between fiction and nonfiction almost never show....In Heyday, as in the best historical fiction, the future doesn't seem predetermined but exists as a series of possibilities..." Houston Chronicle
"Spanning vast intellectual and geographic territory, Heyday portrays the growing pains of changing societies, measuring with a confident pace the opportunities and pitfalls that mark such times....[A] superb work of fiction..." Rocky Mountain News
"Mr. Andersen peoples Heyday with appealing characters, plausibly of their time and place....Heyday is not the smooth concoction that a more experienced historical novelist...would make from the same ingredients. But it's an impressive effort nonetheless." Wall Street Journal
"It's a mighty busy and messy story...but Heyday is also a sweet book, with a tropism toward redemption and happy endings." Geoffrey Wolff, The New York Times Book Review
In a sweeping, brilliantly imagined romp through the boisterous coming of age of America, Anderson has written an irresistible old-fashioned epic as well as a thoroughly modern novel of ideas. This is a gritty, authentic, vivid story unlike any other.
About the Author
Kurt Andersen is the author of Turn of the Century, a national bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book. He also writes a column for New York magazine and hosts the Peabody Award-winning public radio program Studio 360. He was a co-founder of Spy magazine and has been a columnist and critic for the New Yorker and Time. Andersen lives with his wife and daughters in New York.
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