In Turn of the Century (1999), the first novel by Kurt Andersen—former New York editor-in-chief and current columnist for the magazine—the action took place in a very near future only slightly more besotted with reality television than our own. In Heyday, we find ourselves in a past that can’t stop hurtling toward modernity, a world where things are changing so fast that one character suffers from “anticipatory nostalgia.” The year is 1848, and our hero (no nostalgist, he) is Ben Knowles, an Englishman who, while visiting Paris, stumbles into a flashpoint that helps spark a revolution. Then he’s off to America, first to New York—where he falls in love with entrepreneurial-minded prostitute Polly Lucking—next to gold-rush San Francisco. (Unbeknownst to him, a revenge-bent Corsican is trailing him all the way.) This is a swift, rich, thrilling voyage, an adventure of the highest order, but it’s also—for us—a literary excavation that puts Wikipedia to deep shame. If 1848 was indeed the kind of year that “even as it was occurring … seemed like an account in a history book, bright and quick,” then this is just the kind of historical novel one might hope to have been written about it.
By Kurt Andersen, Random House. 622 pages. $26.95