In his second novel, "Heyday" (Random House, $27), journalist Kurt Andersen has written an epic tale of the young Englishman Benjamin Knowles who witnessed Paris soaked in the blood of the revolution of 1848, then escapes France to the chaotic streets of New York City and finally crosses the United States to find his fortune in the gold rush in California.
In New York, Ben picks up three eccentric friends. There is Timothy Skaggs, a sleazy scandal-sheet writer and photographer; and the brother-and-sister duo Polly and Duff Lucking. Polly is an actress and part-time prostitute who steals Ben's heart, while Duff is a fireman and tortured veteran of the Mexican-American War harboring a dark secret and a taste for arson.
Andersen crams his often satirical novel with a contagious fascination with inventions of the period, from the telegraph to cameras and steam-powered fire engines. He also packs the book with historical characters, from Robert E. Lee to Alexis de Tocqueville and Allan Pinkerton, America's first private detective.
The quartet of friends have adventures and misadventures across an America experiencing the growing pains of manifest destiny as they explore utopian societies and grasp for that mountain of gold in the California hills.
The inspiration for "Heyday" came from a chance reading of dates. "The germ for my novel happened one day when I came across the dates for the discovery of gold in California and the French Revolution," said the 52-year-old Andersen from a cafe close to his home in New York City.
"That's what started me," he said, "the sheer, coincidental proximity of the dates. I became so interested in that period because it is a blank in our popular and historical knowledge. People know the Mexican War happened and the telegraph was invented, but this was a period I knew very little about. As I dug deeper and deeper, I thought maybe I could portray this period and spend a few years with characters I like."
With particular relish, Andersen paints a fascinating portrait of 19th-century New York, the city he adopted 31 years ago after leaving Omaha. In 1848, New York was a city teeming with immigrants and full of noise, blood, horse feces and fire.
"New York had 60,000 people in 1800 and 500,000 in 1848," he said. "That's a huge transformation. There were too many horses, too many people, too many carriages, too many wild dogs and pigs. There were buildings being torn down and put up at amazing speeds. Whiskey was incredibly cheap and people were drunk a lot."
New York was also undergoing an intellectual explosion. "There were the beginnings of this bohemian world that interested me, that Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman and Herman Melville were a part of," said Andersen. "Melville was writing his bomb 'Moby Dick.' ... There's a dizzying sense of growth and change."
Andersen made his mark in New York City in 1986 when he and Graydon Carter founded the now-defunct Spy magazine, which developed standards of journalistic irony, sarcasm and snarkiness that are still alive and well in the American media. He is now the host of the popular National Public Radio show "Studio 360."
The novel is rich in its use of historical characters, some well-known, like the photographer Matthew Brady and Charles Darwin, to others whose historical status has faded, like Charles Fremont, the adventurer, self-promoter and politician who helped annex California from the Mexicans.
"I took a certain postmodern pleasure in using and possibly overusing historical characters," admitted Andersen. "It amused me to have a book slightly overstuffed with cameos."
"Heyday" is rich in mid-19th-century slang, seen in the words of street urchins, prostitutes and gold miners. "As I was reading the material from the period, newspapers and books, I started making a file of words and phrases from the time," said Andersen. "I was fascinated by the way some slang disappeared and other slang stayed. The Bowery Boys were the first ones to say 'Hi,' as opposed to hello. In the end, I only used about 3 percent of the words that fascinated me.
"When you are inventing an historical language to use, you are inventing a dialect. The trick for me was to develop a version of English that was more or less accurate, but wouldn't be a perfect reproduction that would stop modern readers. It had to be user-friendly. With dialogue, I was pretty strict, making sure that every phrase was used during that period."
As Ben, Polly, Duff and Skaggs make their way through Ohio, Illinois and the uncharted territories in their quest to get to California, they tour numerous historical moments and places, like the utopian settlement of New Harmony and a Midwestern Mormon ghost town, abandoned after its settlers moved to Utah.
A nation improvising an identity
Andersen strived to keep a balance with his writing to make sure that the historical research did not overwhelm the story.
"I knew from the beginning that that is a familiar thing for historical fiction writers to worry about," said Andersen. "I was fascinated by the times. So much of it was unfamiliar to me. Thank goodness I had a year after I wrote the first draft to cull out material, to cut it down. A lot of this was taking purely digressive stuff out."
As the title "Heyday" indicates, throughout the novel, there is a sense of the ephemeral, when the greatness of the moment, whether it is revolution in the streets of Paris or gold in the hills of California, has come and gone.
"The nature of heydays is that they are passing moments," said Andersen. "As I read accounts of the gold rush from 1853 or 1854, the writers were talking about 1848 as if it was a distant time period. It was only four or five years earlier, but those were the fleeting days when everything spiked.
"The book is very much about when America was being made up and improvised, when all things did seem possible. It was a sense of an amazing adolescence, the adolescence of a nation that seemed like a heyday."
Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.