Jackson: a Novel
By Max Byrd
421 pp., $23.95
Reading this novel is a little like thumbing through an old family album. The snapshots may scatter around in subject and setting, but after a while you begin to feel that you know these people. The pictures tell a story.
Max Byrd's story is Andrew Jackson, not in any simple biographical sense, but in the broader sense of how America's first great populist created a political and social vortex that drew in all kinds of people. The protagonist in "Jackson" is not Jackson himself, but a young American writer (actually an expatriate happily living in Paris) who is commissioned by Jackson's foes to pen yet another "life" of Old Hickory. And to do it in time to have some bearing on the presidential election of 1828.
The writer, David Chase, is being paid to unearth some fresh, damaging scandal - probably about Jackson's much maligned wife, Rachel. But in the course of his year of research, Chase unearths something much more significant. He begins to understand why countless thousands of his countrymen would willingly follow the unlettered, yet eloquent Jackson into the mouths of cannons.
Jackson, Chase learns, is a kind of primal force of history reshaping America. The noble democratic experiment conceived by Jefferson is giving way to a boisterous, surging, sometimes smelly democratic reality. When it comes time to do his part to stem the Jacksonian tide by printing his "dirt," Chase is torn.
Byrd tells his story, snapshot style, with a flow of quick, colorful chapters. They pop from Chase's probings of bucolic Washington, in the waning days of the John Quincy Adams's administration, to his steamy love affair with the daughter of the British writer who had the original commission for the Jackson book, (but lost it due to illness and drink) to Jackson's Nashville home, the Hermitage, where the general prepares for political triumph and his wife dreads it.
Like his creation, Chase, Byrd has mastered the spadework of writing. He musters vivid detail. The historical sweep of the book - starting with a prologue in which Jefferson warns that Jackson is "the most dangerous man in America" - makes it more than a "good read." Byrd's rat-tat-tat narrative will propel readers with even a slight interest in American history on to the last page. And it will leave them pondering the amazing continuity in America past and present.
* Keith Henderson is an editorial page writer for the Monitor.