Random House / 624 pages / $26.95
Kurt Andersen knows culture. Most readers will recognize him for his pithy interviews on NPR's Studio 360 or his jaunty wit as the co-founder of Spy magazine or as the savvy former editor of New York magazine. Anderson is a regular Renaissance guy, as anyone who tunes in on his radio pieces knows. One week he's having a dead-serious discussion about photography and the metaphysics of writing with Susan Sontag just before her death, another he's jocularly squeezing details from David Milch about George Bush's frat days at Yale. Anderson knows stuff -- lots of stuff -- about lots of different things.
And he writes about them.
His first novel, Turn of the Century, struck the perfect pitch of the Y2K era: The encroaching millennial shift was a time for missteps and contemporary culture gone wildly over the top. It was the dot.com/Wall Street rise/holy hipster/Cosmo-in-a-go-cup/Starbucks-meets-Dreamworks days and Andersen had it down pat: He captured all the absurdities with skill, nuance and a gleeful kind of vengeance. Certainly he knew whereof he wrote and spoke, as he was perennially taking the pulse of Manhattan and Hollywood.
But Andersen's a 21st-century animal. One would expect him to know "now," not "then." Yet his latest novel, Heyday, is a powerful historical work with all the rich complexity inherent in Turn of the Century. The first novel was really good, the second is also really good -- and really surprising, because as deep as Studio 360 can get, as urbane and witty as Turn of the Century was, neither really prepares one for the breadth of Heyday, which is simply stellar and, oh yes, a tour de force.
Unlike Turn of the Century, Heyday is no play on celebrity and the silly vicissitudes that come with 21st-century distractions. Heyday is a serious (if at times acerbic and playful and what the French call fou -- after all, the epigraphs are from Tocqueville and Poe!) insight into 19th-century life. Yet it has many of the components of Turn of the Century -- it's about how America ticks, just in a different era.
The year 1848 was seminal, just as 1999 was. People were partying not like it was 1999, but like it was the Gold Rush and like America was indeed paved -- from Gotham to Cal-i-forn-EYE-AY -- with gold dust, gold coins, golden dreams with rose-colored glasses everywhere.
Into this America, Benjamin Knowles "wobbled into the New World" from a ship called the Davy Crockett into that well-known port in New Jersey near where the big lady now stands.
It doesn't take Knowles long to get his land legs -- or to get his heart ensnared by both America and a lovely young lady named Polly Lucking. He meets Polly one enchanted evening across a crowded room and is, as the song implies, smitten and gob-smacked for good and all.
Polly's a beauty and a firecracker, but she's not quite the girl one takes home to mother. She's a part-time whore and part-time actress, with the two melding together most days. She's a little bit Victoria Woodhull -- espousing her own brand of 19th-century Pussycat Doll free love in an era that wasn't quite onto it yet, despite the fact that 1848 also saw the Seneca Falls Convention, which began the long struggle for women's suffrage. Knowles doesn't care -- he loves her.
But, as is so often the case with true love, things will go awry. There's a messy complication and Polly takes off for parts unknown, her friend Priscilla in tow.
So: Knowles is hot for Polly and hot on her trail/tail, but there's more to her than one expects and soon Knowles is chasing her across the country.
Andersen's assessment of his characters and of the era is keen. Knowles has a past -- doesn't every protagonist? -- and it globe-trots right along with him. It seems that a while back Knowles was in Paris and involved in a murder. There's a vengeful man seeking, well, vengeance, who follows Knowles to England, then America, then ...
Then there are the other characters Andersen gives us -- the Orwell-meets-Jake Barnes-style journalist, Timothy Scaggs, and Polly's off-kilter brother, Duff. Duff got involved in the wrong side of the campaign against Mexico. He also has a firebug problem. These are wild guys on a wild mission.
Enter the Gold Rush. Enter The Vengeful Man. Intrigue ensues.
Andersen gets it all just right. The book's main flaw is a slow start -- a lot of description and scene-setting and backstory -- but the pace picks up and when it does, it picks up fast and furious. Anderson renders the tone and feel of the era acutely (the descriptions of California at the height of the Gold Rush are superb) and the massive research the book required is evidenced on nearly every page by the sheer seamlessness of description and sensibility.
Andersen has done that rare thing -- penned a second novel as good as his acclaimed first.
At over 600 pages, this is no quick read, but it is a captivating and thoroughly engaging story with a quintet of compelling characters and an epic resonance.
Victoria A. Brownworth is a syndicated columnist. Her most recent book is "The Golden Age of Lesbian Erotica: 1920-1940." She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and is currently at work on a book about Leon Trotsky and Frida Kahlo.