Kurt Andersen's ambitious second novel, we enjoy a trip back to the
beginning years of the gold rush in California. And like the East
Coasters who dared to make the trip to obtain their treasure, he
takes a long while getting there.
HEYDAY follows the circuitous fortunes of a quartet of friends ---
and supporting characters --- as they slowly come together in New
York City in the late 1840s: Ben Knowles, who yearns to doff the
dull life that surely must await him as the son of a minor
nobleman; Polly Lucking, an actress-cum-prostitute, and her
brother, Duff, who returned from the Spanish-American War scarred
in more ways than one; and Timothy Skaggs, a
newspaperman/photographer/inventor who is ambivalent about life in
Pushing the action is the French soldier Drumont --- Javert to
Knowles's Jean Valjean --- who holds Knowles responsible for the
death of his younger brother in a protest rally during the
Revolution, and is willing to figuratively follow him to the ends
of the earth for his revenge.
The themes of destruction and creation are conjoined throughout the
novel, whether discussing relationships, events, or life and death
itself. For example, there is Duff's fascination with fire and
Skagg's avocation of taking daguerreotypes, an early form of
At the base of HEYDAY, however, is a love story as Knowles,
accompanied by his trio of gentlemen, pursues Polly Lucking, who
has decided to join her friend and fellow lady of the night,
Priscilla Christmas, as she seeks to flee her abusive father.
Kurt Andersen, author of TURN OF THE CENTURY and host of National
Public Radio's "Studio 360," has a flair for language,
incorporating the patois of New York, the Midwest and the West
Coast. We follow the bemusements of both Knowles and Drumont as
they struggle to understand some of the slang they encounter in
their new surroundings. The Englishman fares little better than the
Frenchman in grasping the challenging idioms.
As if to mirror a slower era, Andersen's presentation is similarly
lugubrious. He easily could have cut 100 pages or so, but he seems
to have enjoyed the copious amounts of research necessary to
convincingly pull off his historical fiction. He incorporates
real-life personages and events, such as Walt Whitman, Allan
Pinkerton, Billy Herndon, John C. Fremont, Mormonism and the
California Gold Rush to add color and realism.
Andersen is to be congratulated for putting together such an
education package of mid-19th-century mores and morals, but HEYDAY
is an example of too much of a good thing.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on January 22, 2011