Early in Kurt Andersen's "Heyday," set in 1848-49, a character admits his literary taste isn't arty: "I know I am supposed to read Balzac and Flaubert ... but I still crave the impossible coincidence. Give me Dumas, or Dickens." This is as clear a manifesto as a novelist could plant. Andersen seems to take nostalgic pleasure in deploying coincidences, including the one that kicks off the plot: two friends pause near the real-life street address of a Dumas character, and runs smack-dab into the French Revolution.
You'd hardly expect such a retro book from Andersen, the journalist whose first novel, 1999's "Turn of the Century," anthropologized contemporary Manhattan. The characters—a prostitute, her scary brother and her lover, a Brit who wants to be an American—end up in California, where they're followed by the lover's nemesis. He sets much of "Heyday" in Manhattan, too, but 150 years earlier, and the research behind it seems intimidating—and meticulous: blacks-only railroad cars are painted black (a "black" theater means men-only, because of male evening dress), "heat wave" is such a new coinage that it appears in quotes. Did 1848 Americans really say "Yeah. Riiiiight"? Don't bet against it.
But the merely decorative celebrity cameos—bluff, bearded Walt Whitman, with an "epicene" male friend, and Charles Darwin, who loudly and repeatedly breaks wind—make clear that "Heyday" is infotainment for readers Andersen must consider clueless. (Do we really need to be told that il est mort means "he is dead"?) His people have too many exchanges like this: "But who is this Mrs. Stanton?" someone asks. "Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton," someone else answers. "A lady of Seneca Falls," a third person adds, "from a great family of abolitionists." What is the sound of exposition clunking? True, the character being spoken to might not know all this, but we do. Literary novelists grind their teeth for hours until they find a less amateurish way to deliver necessary exposition.
"Heyday," though, is an upmarket page turner—even if the tempo drags for a while before the slam-bang finale. We may not get a feel for the characters, much as Andersen struggles to make them more than types. But Anna Kareninas and Humbert Humberts only clog up a popular novelist's page-turning machinery. Here we get action, "Believe It or Not" oddities and backdrops ranging from Paris and New York to the California gold hills. This age has weird similarities to our own: decadent Manhattan party spaces, a trumped-up war (with Mexico). "Philosophical" motif—"Destruction and creation are the cycle of life"—will dazzle readers who haven't seen "The Lion King." A sophisticate like Andersen might read this book as a guilty pleasure. Less-fastidious readers will find it a pleasure, pure and simple.