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Theories of transmutation

Heyday A Novel Kurt Andersen Random House: 622 pp., $26.95

March 04, 2007|Susan Straight | Susan Straight, a professor at UC Riverside, is the author of six novels, mostly recently "A Million Nightingales."

LIKE many readers, I love historical fiction that transports me back to a particular place in the world and immerses me fully and imaginatively in the lives of its inhabitants. I remember finding, when I was very young, a paperback historical romance set in biblical times that began in Egypt, moved to Galilee and ended at Masada; that's when I realized how vividly fiction can re-create places and lives.

Some critics attribute the resurgence of historical fiction to our reluctance to look forward and our pleasure in looking back -- in shuddering at how much worse life was in Victorian London or medieval France. Some trot out the old trope that those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it. But certain contemporary historical novels lean too much toward historical gore, focusing on blood, epidemic, squalor and death; or historical porn, with its copious sex, aberrance and bestiality. Often absent are compelling and original characters that engage the reader.

"Heyday," Kurt Andersen's new novel, falls into another category: historical lore, with an abundance of plot, well-researched settings and characters that are vivid, worrisome, horrifying, stubborn and convincing. The period details are there, but they are not the book's sole raison d'etre. Andersen's previous novel, "Turn of the Century" (2000), was a social satire celebrating the arrival of the millennium; this time, he has turned his panoramic gaze backward -- to New York City, and then to the rest of America, in 1848-50.

The Englishman Benjamin Knowles, second son of a baronet, unwittingly precipitates and then participates in a three-day rebellion in Paris that dethrones the French monarchy and instigates revolutions elsewhere in Europe. He flees Paris for home and then heads to New York, where he meets Timothy Skaggs, a man of many passions -- journalism, astronomy, daguerreotype photography. ("Skaggs twisted the brass focus knob a final jot, forward and back, making the image on the glass a hair sharper. He adored focusing -- it provided him the momentary happy godlike sensation of controlling one small spot in the universe.") Alone and with Skaggs, Knowles roams the city, their sojourns ending in nights of liquor and long, long conversations about the world. New York is depicted in exuberant detail: docks, sugarhouses, dairies, Prince Street, Five Points, Gramercy Park (slyly referred to as "a reproduction of the city he had fled").

The beginning of the novel is a bit slow, due to layers of flashback and careful scene-setting, but the lengthy dinner-party exchanges (including an amazing one in England with a flatulent Charles Darwin) reminded me that people once did talk like this, for hours on end, debating world politics, social movements, art, science. "[T]ransmutation happens to be an idea much on my mind," Darwin says to Knowles, "... water becoming steam ... a girl of the streets gradually turned into a respectable woman." He also muses on the "transmutation" of barnacles and tapirs; later, Knowles encounters both in America. As for the girl of the streets, Knowles will spend the rest of the novel testing that theory of Darwin's.

Skaggs introduces Knowles to Polly Lucking, an actress and part-time prostitute in a Mercer Street house, who is smart enough to keep her life strictly compartmentalized (in her assignations, she uses various aliases out of Jane Austen novels) and ambitious enough to save her money. Both she and her brother, Duff Lucking, have been damaged by life -- a hard-luck existence after their father's ill-timed investments, their toddler siblings killed by "swill milk." Duff's form of compartmentalization is vengeful pyromania and an obsession with the Bible. He joins the U.S. Army and is forever changed by the Mexican War. After five days of shelling with "incendiary hot shot," he witnesses the results: "In a little yard behind a ruined, smoldering tavern they'd found five people curled and sprawled on the ground, broken and burned and bleeding, whimpering and groaning, barely alive." He deserts and, back in New York, becomes a firefighter, convinced that only fire can cleanse sin. He starts his own blazes, burning down the swill-milk plant and various other places, including the bakery where Fatty Freeborn works. Freeborn is a disgustingly vivid Bowery b'hoy ("they were themselves human slang, and like new words had sprouted mysteriously and suddenly in the less respectable city streets and cellars"), who engages in "blackbirding" -- capturing escaped slaves and returning them to the Aetna and New-York Life insurance companies for the reward.

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