Wednesday, April 04, 2007
I've been battling a bad case of the crud for the last several days, but the upside of not feeling well enough to do much of anything meant that I had plenty of time to read.
I'd thought it might take me weeks to get through Kurt Andersen's Heyday, but once started, I didn't want to stop. Andersen provides a detailed yet panoramic view of the year 1848. Revolutions are being staged in Europe, and after Englishman Ben Knowles finds himself an unwitting participant in the February 23 insurrection in Paris (he uses a taxidermied penguin as a makeshift weapon), he quits the family firm and books a passage to America, where he expects to find enough vulgarity and democracy to satisfy his young soul (before he leaves, he meets his father's neighbor, Charles Darwin, and promises to send barnacle samples back to him).
In New York, he becomes d’Artagnan to established threesome Timothy Skaggs, journalist, daguerreotypist and budding astronomer; Polly Lucking, freethinker, actress, and part-time prostitute (her customers know her by the names of Jane Austen heroines); and Polly's well-meaning but mentally-disturbed brother Duff, a Mexican War deserter who knows more than he should about explosives.
Polly quarrels with Ben the evening before an out-of-town acting gig, then finds her role recast when her other line of work is abruptly revealed. She heads west with her young protege Priscilla Christmas to live in one of many uptopian societies that have sprung up. Before long, the males follow, and their sights become fixed on the California gold rush.
Great sprawly fun. Kind of a cross between Ragtime and Lonesome Dove.