A wild ride through 1848's 'Heyday'

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Exuberance is an admirable quality in both puppies and books. After all, if a writer can't be bothered to become enthused about his subject, why should readers? Happily, Kurt Andersen's new historical novel Heyday is chock-full of the vibrant energy of the 19th-century New World.

It's 1848, and wealthy Londoner Benjamin Knowles decides he needs a change. His epiphany comes after he and his stuffed penguin inadvertently become part of the revolution in France that leads to the abdication of the king and the death of Ben's best friend. Ben promptly chucks his job with the family firm and books passage for New York. He views his new accommodations at the Astor Hotel – featherbed, water closet, steam heat, and all – with a sinking heart. "White and new and fine, the Astor House was the very picture of ten-shilling-a-night respectability. Except for its great size, it was in no way vulgar or strange, and Ben had come to America craving vulgarity and strangeness."

Ben has no need to worry – the Astor House is pretty much the only bastion of respectability in the whole book. (Squeamish readers, be warned: Andersen is happy to indulge his character's appetite for vulgarity, steeping his tale in a stew of bodily effluvia.) Ben quickly falls in with Polly Lucking, an actress who moonlights as a prostitute under the name "Elizabeth Bennet"; her brother, Duff, a volunteer fireman who was wounded in the Mexican-American war; and their friend Timothy Skaggs, "slangmonger" and author of pulp books like "Ruined by a Nunnery."

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Andersen, cofounder of Spy magazine and host of NPR's "Studio 360," has written a fat, sweeping tale, in line with the 19th-century novelists his characters read. " 'I know I am supposed to read Balzac and Flaubert,'" one of Ben's friends confesses. But, his true preference: " 'Give me Dumas, or Dickens.' " Victor Hugo isn't mentioned, but he receives an homage: Ben is being tracked by a French policeman who blames Ben for the death of his younger brother during the revolution. Gabriel Drumont is an admirer of Eugène François Vidocq, the criminal-turned-chief of police who was Hugo's inspiration for both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in "Les Misérables." Unfortunately, Drumont lacks Javert's implacable presence – at times I completely forgot he was following Ben.

Among New York's skyscrapers and working-class dandies, "Heyday" shines, but Andersen has to get his characters to California in time for the Gold Rush, so he manufactures a quarrel between Polly and Ben. Hurt, Polly takes off for the West with her protégée, an abused teenage prostitute named Priscilla Christmas who has endured some truly horrible events in her young life. (To Priscilla working in a brothel seems like a step up – compared to prior experience.) Ben follows Polly cross-country, Skaggs and Duff in tow, determined to win her back.

It's at this point that "Heyday" becomes a little less eager and a trifle less charming. The characters seem less alive outside Manhattan, even as the machinations of the plot become more apparent. Andersen crams in just about every notable person and event of 1848 – from Allen Pinkerton to the now-extinct Carolina Parakeet to the Donner Party. Ben is related by marriage to Alexis de Tocqueville, author of "Democracy in America," and went to school with Frederick Engels. Charles Darwin has a flatulent cameo; Walt Whitman fares rather better. Duff, Ben, and Skaggs encounter the beginnings of the women's rights movement in Seneca Falls, N.Y.; then swing by Illinois to visit a 19th-century experiment in communal living and give their regards to Congressman Lincoln.

Afterward, they head down to New Orleans to be appalled by slavery for a few pages before heading to California to find gold in them thar hills. A few characters detour out to Utah's Salt Lake, where the Mormons are building their city. One almost expects to hear Sally Field calling, "Run, Forrest! Run to San Francisco!"

Skaggs calls 1848 an "annus mirabilus" and Ben ultimately decides "that Skaggs had been exactly right about 1848. Even as it was occurring, it seemed like an account in a history book, bright and quick."

Only textbooks don't seem to have done it justice. In high school, I vaguely remember my teacher mentioning the Mexican-American War and Zachary Taylor as we rushed to the Civil War. Andersen is so knowledgeable that he can probably do a minute-by-minute timeline of the entire year, and so enthusiastic about his subject that readers will probably gladly sign up for the history lesson.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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