If the past is a foreign country, Kurt Andersen probably needs a diplomatic waiver to cross the border. As co-founder of Spy and editor in chief of New York, he was paid to keep two steps ahead of the present; and at the turn of the millennium, when he first tried his hand at fiction, he set his media-fest debut, Turn of the Century, a year into the future. This is clearly a guy more comfortable with tomorrow than yesterday.
Imagine, then, the sheer effort of will required to produce Heyday, Mr. Andersen’s headstrong second novel, a 600-page epic insistently set in 1848, the year that Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto, the year revolution threatened to sweep across Europe, the year Mexico ceded California to the United States. Though Mr. Andersen does his best to make the hard work of turning back the clock look like a snap—Look! A horse-drawn hackney cab!—the phrase “labor-intensive” inevitably suggests itself.
Conveniently, Mr. Andersen has discovered that New York City in 1848 is a whole lot like New York City next week. The delightful first chapter—in which our hero, Benjamin Knowles, an Englishman still wobbly from his maiden trans-Atlantic journey, lands in New Jersey (“Until an hour before, he had never heard of New Jersey”) and crosses by ferry to Manhattan—is a sustained exercise in making a century and a half of “progress” disappear. O.K., so there’s no Lincoln or Holland Tunnel, but the rest is charmingly familiar, like Ben’s “cabdriver,” who’s “friendly and talkative in just the brassy way Americans were reputed to be.” It’s all new to Ben, the bustle and confusion, but he likes it—“he had the odd sense of arriving home.”
Though there’s a murderous Frenchman intent on crossing the ocean to track him down, Ben doesn’t know that he’s being followed. He loafs in New York for several months, long enough to make friends with Timothy Skaggs, a madcap dilettante; make love with Polly Lucking, a would-be actress and part-time prostitute; and make peace with Polly’s peculiar brother, Duff, a veteran of the Mexican war with a scar on his cheek and a cache of scary secrets.
Mr. Andersen shadows these four friends as they wander around Manhattan, and the account of their comings and goings is easily the best part of the book—unhurried retro-reportage full of entertaining sights and sounds. Skaggs is an amateur photographer (“Daguerreotypomania hit Skaggs hard”), and occasionally we see what he sees through the viewfinder, which is instructive, especially all the lovingly arranged period detail that somehow seems so now.
Skaggs takes Ben to view some installation art (actually it’s a clipper ship being built in the “mold loft” of a shipyard, but it resembles a vast Damien Hirst project), and then to “a genuine New York blowout” upstairs: “The space, illuminated by candles, was a storeroom empty of all fixtures and devoid of decoration. Waiters were passing and pouring glasses of water and champagne. Ben had never attended or even imagined a party in such a place. Nor had he ever seen a more colorful mishmash of people gathered together. Half the crowd looked rich, and half of those were the sort of rich men who wore gold waistcoats and striped blue neckties and large emerald shirt studs …. But there were also publishing clerks and watchmakers and painters, tavernkeepers and actors, even truckers and stonecutters. At the end of the loft were two clarinetists, one pair playing Chopin études, the other popular tunes.” Skaggs explains to Ben the drug-taking on the far side of the room as the “instant awe and bliss of chemistry …. Medicines for the super-strained American soul”; he reveals that these 19th-century raves are always held “at some highly improbable location, never announced but rather … feverishly rumored among certain circles.”
In addition to the carefully vetted detail about “Bowery b’hoys” (“[they] didn’t just speak in slang, they were themselves human slang”), spittoons and gaslight (“gasfired wakefulness had begun to overstimulate [New York’s] inhabitants, make them merrier, louder, funnier, stranger, greedier, crazed”), there’s a lot of blather about the meaning of America (think possibility); some noodling on Skagg’s part about the nature of time; and a deranged fixation on Duff’s part with this deeply meaningful mantra: “Destruction and creation, the cycle of life.”
The urban idyll ends when Polly lights out for the territory (she’s a forward-thinking girl who wants to join a utopian community). The lovelorn Ben chases after her, with Skaggs and Duff in tow. Road trip! After a circuitous and weirdly uneventful journey, they all end up in California, just in time for the gold rush. They become prospectors, establish their own commune, and wait patiently for the plot (i.e., the murderous Frenchman) to catch up with them.
It’s perfectly good, pointless fun—and a clever screenwriter may one day make Mr. Andersen a pretty penny—but as a novel, Heyday flops. The plot’s secrets are transparent, its construction needlessly complex; the characters are flimsy and unconvincing; and the pacing is almost perversely poor. None of it feels organic, like a story waiting to be told; it’s all forced, artificial—contrived.
Mr. Andersen’s publishers, touching all bases, tell us that Heyday bears resemblance to Dickens, Twain, Doctorow and McMurtry. I was reminded instead of Susan Sontag’s In America, which is vastly more sophisticated but follows the same 19th-century trajectory from Europe to America and also takes in a utopian scheme.
Sontag’s novel ends with the cameo appearance of the actor Edwin Booth (brother of Lincoln’s assassin), who delivers a long, dazzling, drunken monologue, part confession, part seduction. Compared with this mysterious and bizarrely convincing episode—token of a rich historical imagination at work—the half-hearted cameos in Heyday (a flatulent Charles Darwin, an exuberantly friendly Walt Whitman) are mechanical and uninspired.
The fact that the author doesn’t know how to imbed these historical figures in the realm of make-believe, doesn’t know how to let them breathe freely, is a clear tip-off: Yes, Kurt Andersen has made an ingenious foray into the distant past, but fiction, for him, remains a foreign country.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.
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