By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated March 08, 2007 05:00 AM


This is not the sort of book you’d expect from the guy who cofounded Spy magazine. Or from the hipster who hosts Studio 360, a radio show co-produced by Public Radio International and WNYC, New York Public Radio. And certainly not from the writer so ahead of his time he actually set his first novel, 1999’s Turn of the Century, one year in the future.

But here it is, Kurt Andersen’s Heyday, an old-fashioned, 600-plus-page historical tome parked smack in the middle of the 19th century. To be precise, 1848, the year gold was discovered in California, Darwin hit upon his theory of evolution, and pro-democracy riots flared across Europe. It’s also the year — in Andersen’s imagination — that young British aristocrat Benjamin Knowles crossed the Atlantic to find adventure and riches (not to mention love) in the bubbling-over, barely stirred melting pot of pre-Civil War America.

It’s too easy to poke fun — imagine, Andersen fancying himself Charles Dickens or Mark Twain, giving characters names like Priscilla Christmas and Polly Lucking! — except that Heyday is too hard to put down. If its ripping plot twists don’t hook you (how Knowles is followed by a furious Frenchman who blames him for the accidental death of his brother, or how the young actress he falls for during his visit to a New York restaurant hides a scandalous secret from him), then you’re bound to be snared by the scads of riveting historical details Andersen artfully dollops onto every page.

Some writers of period fiction make big, messy piles of their facts; Andersen stitches his so seamlessly into his prose you almost don’t realize you’re learning stuff (like when the slang term ”OK” first popped up in the vernacular). The results are so subtly effective, you feel a little like you’ve found a long-lost literary treasure that was actually written more than 150 years ago. Here’s how the author cheekily describes his hero’s wonderment aboard a newfangled steam engine: ”He was exhilarated, as always, by travel — by leaving London, yes, but even more by having traveled fast, sitting inside a machine moving at fifty miles an hour, striking straight over the landscape like a bullet or a god.” Even the cameos are handled with admirable delicacy (you never actually meet young Abraham Lincoln, but his old law partner, Billy Herndon, appears during a pit stop in Illinois).

In the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer worked, years ago, at Spy. The temptation to criticize a former boss’ job performance is tough to resist, so why try? Andersen’s last novel was witty, sharp, and full of promise, but suffered from the flaw of all truly biting satire: It became impossible to read once the culture it mocked had moved on. Happily, Heyday won’t have that problem. It’ll be just as enjoyable in 150 years as it is today. A