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."
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.