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One of the absolutes of bookchat land,” wrote Gore Vidal several years ago in the New York Review of Books, “is that the historical novel is neither history nor novel.” Of course, the fairness of that statement depends on the quality of writing and the validity of historical content. James Fenimore Cooper’s novels never rated particularly high with critics as either fiction or history; Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage won instant acceptance as both. But Vidal exposed a legitimate point: Until fairly recently, first-rate American historical novels were few and far between.

The last four decades or so have probably produced more quality American historical novels than the previous century and a half. Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964) and The Return of Little Big Man (1999), Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1974), E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975), Vidal’s Lincoln (1984), and Kevin Baker’s recent “City of Fire” trilogy chronicling New York’s secret history—all spring to mind. Many more, including Susan Sontag’s In America (2001), might have been marketed as historical novels instead of postmodern fiction had their authors not been afraid of being banished to the children’s table. Kurt Andersen, I suspect, would be happy to have his exhilarating new opus, Heyday, declared historical fiction in neon lights.

Neon lights hadn’t yet been invented in 1848, when, in Heyday, young English aristocrat Benjamin Knowles is taken by the sight of a lovely young woman who is “illuminated by a pool of gaslight.” Benjamin sees all things American in a romantic haze. As a boy in England, he dreamed of the American frontier: “When he practiced shooting his longbow he no longer imagined himself one of Henry V’s archers at Agincourt but James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, hunting game in some wild, infinite American forest.” Benjamin is a device that enables us to see the sprawl of prenCivil War America through a foreigner’s eyes and to contrast it with Europe. Through Benjamin’s acquaintance with Duff Lucking (a Mexican-American War veteran haunted by both his compliance in an unjust war and his subsequent desertion) and Duff’s sister, Polly, (a part-time actress and prostitute with whom Benjamin falls in love) we get a cutaway view of America’s urban landscape, particularly late-1840s New York, which “has the air of the permanent carnival about it, as if half its population were on a spree.”

Andersen, author of Turn of the Century and co-founder of Spy magazine, hasn’t created something new in regard to the American historical novel, but he has presented it in a new (gas)light. He unabashedly plays off conventions established by Dickens (Andersen has a talent for names that Dickens would envy: Paragrine “Perry” Christmas, Truman Codwise, and Ninian Bobo) and Hugo (the plot is propelled by a murder in Paris during the 1848 revolution with an avenger who makes Javert seem as ineffectual as Inspector Clouseau). Heyday’s plot, which follows Benjamin and Duff as they search for Polly across the American wilderness, all the way to gold rush California, is obviously meant to provide a sightseeing tour of North and Central America at a time just before modernity—when the steam engine, railroads, and telegraph were overwhelming the primitive, buffalo-strewn West.

Andersen has researched his material well enough to be at home with it, and the seams between fiction and nonfiction almost never show. For instance, Benjamin walks down New York’s Canal Street for the first time; the lane is “filled with men and women at this hour, lounging, laughing, drinking, and listening to a musical hodgepodge. He tried to pick out the different tunes as he passed­ a polka, a Negro song, an imitation of a Negro song, a Hayden divertimento, and some Teutonic dirge, all played simultaneously by five different bands on trumpet, castanets, violins, harmonicas, oboes, tubas, accordions, and drums. Scattered around the gardens he saw two jugglers, a team of three acrobats, and a plate-spinner.” Any one of Heyday’s scenes, including a brief stop at one of the country’s ill-fated mid-19th-century Utopian communes, are detailed enough to be the makings of a fine novel in itself.

The westward trek is the engine that propels the story, fueled by the characters’ exuberance at being in America during such a fabulous era in history. (Andersen’s characters are constantly dazzled by the abundance and variety of life they encounter.) He offers a vision of the America of 160 years ago, or at least as Americans might have seen it then: as an opportunity for freedom and self-realization and for leaving behind the limitations and cynicism of Europe.

Too often in historical fiction, characters mime an author’s attitude toward the present; readers are seldom allowed to experience things with the authentic wonder. In Heyday, as in the very best historical fiction, you feel that the future isn’t predetermined but exists as a series of possibilities—possibilities that include outcomes both good and evil. “The Garden of Eden and Gomorrah merged into a single estate,” observes Duff’s friend, a journalist named Skaggs, while passing through the Isthmus of Panama on the way to California. The judgment could stand as all the characters’ reactions to the contradictions of the New World, and the America of Heyday is big enough to encompass all of them.