Review of Kurt Andersen’s novel Heyday; Toronto Star, spring 2007.
Kurt Andersen’s first novel, Turn of the Century, was all about zeitgeist. Set in Manhattan at the height of the first Internet boom, it had its characters juggling complicated lifestyles and eating in trendy restaurants while embroiled in schemes and ventures in the tech and entertainment fields. Andersen, a co-founder of Spy and former editor-in-chief of New York, was well poised to recreate that milieu for fictional purposes, and the book was a lot of fun, enlivened by an inside feel and a breezy pace.
Andersen’s second novel, Heyday, is all about research.
For Heyday is a prime specimen of the Historical Yarn. It’s set in 1848, when a young Englishman named Benjamin Knowles renounces his family business and sets off to find his fortune in the rough, protean new society of America. (Some recent misadventures in Paris have stirred Ben’s taste for adventure; although he doesn’t know it, he’s left a dead gendarme in his wake and there’s another one on his trail, looking for revenge.) In New York City, Ben falls in with a motley group of friends: part-time prostitute and aspiring actress Polly Lucking; her brother Duff, a traumatized vet of the Mexican War with a secret compulsion for arson; and Timothy Skaggs, a dissolute but kindhearted journalist who’s the old man of the group at 35.
Ben and Polly fall in love, they quarrel, and she leaves New York in search of a rural Utopian community where she might make a new home. Soon afterward, Ben and Duff and Timothy set out to catch up with Polly, tracking her west. Eventually all of them make their way to California, looking to get in on the Gold Rush action. And all the while, that murderous Frenchman is still chasing Ben.
In telling this tale, Andersen bows to several of the historical yarn’s obligatory conventions:
1. Scenery, scenery, scenery. From cobble-stoned Paris streets in the middle of a riot to New York’s endless parties to San Francisco rising up from the mad scrabble of the Gold Rush, Heyday is stuffed with description and information. This extends well beyond judicious scene-setting or well-chosen colourful details, to the point that the narrative becomes one long exhausting, droning guided tour – a big reason for this book’s inflated page count.
2. Famous people everywhere. Just as believers in reincarnation tend to insist that they lived their own past lives in precincts of power and celebrity and intrigue, characters in historical yarns must inevitably encounter some of the most storied figures of the age. And so the exploits of Andersen’s happy wanderers feature a carousel of cameos: Charles Darwin and Friederich Engels and de Tocqueville and Walt Whitman and songwriter Stephen Foster and detective Allan Pinkerton. For scale purposes, imagine how absurd it would look if every second contemporary novel had its characters bumping into Al Gore and Britney Spears.
3. Protagonists who are more enlightened than their times. The U.S. in 1848 is a land of ruthless Manifest Destiny, and even the northern states are unduly accommodating toward their slaveholding southern neighbours. But don’t worry. Under the enveloping wisdom of Skaggs (Ben is “pleased to have an American friend to enlighten him about America’s flaws and impurities”), our heroes understand the same things that we readers do: that war and imperialism are bad and that people are the same under the skin and that human rights are inviolable.
4. Showy but superficial nods toward contemporary relevance. About the States’ recent military history, Skaggs reflects that “patriotic hoopla annoyed him, as did the spurious argument that Polk was obliged to attack Mexico before Mexico turned its weapons against the United States.”
To complain about all these things feels like a sour-hearted attempt to spoil the fun; this is simply a yarn, after all. But there’s surprisingly little fun to be had in Heyday. Mostly the novel just feels bloated and clunky. Andersen’s prose moves with a mere serviceable reliability rather than reverberating with the warp and wobble of fiction. And throughout the narrative he’s a hovering, intrusive presence – reminding us of our history (even when the characters don’t understand what’s going on themselves), pointing out connections we can make on our own, explaining motives that are obvious. If a character teases, he must be described as “teasing.” If he nods emphatically, he must “nod emphatically in agreement.”
Nor is there much to catch hold of in the characters. The villain – that vengeful gendarme – is a real moustache-twirler, while Ben and his American friends quickly fall into a bland fellowship that might as well be something out of the Bobbsey Twins for all its nuance and believability. To be fair, Andersen does pretend to complicate these relationships with little episodes of unhappiness or minor disagreements, but these are the quick skips of a tiny, smooth stone along a placid surface.
The only potentially interesting character, in fact, is Duff, who secretly deserted the American army and took up arms alongside the Mexicans, and who’s now wracked by pyromania, self-righteous murderous impulses, and deepening religious fervour. But because his torment is described in the same flat tones and breezy pacing as the rest of the story, it lacks much power or depth and only comes off as out of place and jarring. Heyday isn’t a novel to be taken seriously – few historical yarns are – but nor is it as entertaining as it should be.