“Heyday,” by Kurt Andersen, is by far the best book I’ve read this year. Set in 1848, and enlivened by fascinating, carefully researched period details, it’s a love letter to America’s spirit of adventure and discovery. A young Englishman comes to New York to see what the Yanks are all about, falls for a local girl, befriends her brother and their cynical journalist pal, and the four wind up traveling all the way to California in search of excitement (and gold). The book brims with all manner of villains and colorful characters, and the story is just plain fun, with plenty of humor, excitement, and romance.
Most appealing to me, however, is the way Andersen completely immerses the reader in the world of 1848. He only uses vocabulary that would have been common then, with characters remarking on new words or usages (“OK” was just coming into vogue at the time). America-inspired democracy is starting to spring up around Europe, and America itself is in the midst of a remarkable era of progress and change. It’s easy to see parallels to modern life, particularly of the “the more things change, the more they stay the same” variety. Someone sends a telegraph, receives a reply almost instantly, sends his own response back, and marvels at how he’s able to have an actual conversation with someone hundreds of miles away — which is exactly what modern instant messaging is. Andersen lets us notice these little parallels without commenting on them.
As a fan of history, I’m also amazed and delighted by how much detail Andersen includes. Sometimes it’s not relevant to the story, but it’s always interesting nonetheless. (Did you know that in New York City, May 1 was a semi-official “moving day”? That’s when leases would run out, resulting in thousands of people changes residences all on the same morning. Thanks, “Heyday”!) He covers every elements of life — religion, politics, courtship, entertainment, etc. — to create a very vivid sense of what it was like to be American in 1848. And it’s in the service of an enjoyable, intelligent story with memorable characters. It’s just out in paperback, and I heartily recommend it.