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Grant: A Novel Hardcover – August 1, 2000

3.9 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Devotees of the historical novel will find much to admire in Max Byrd's tightly written and consistently entertaining glance backward at General U.S. Grant's failed attempt to win a third presidential term. In life, Grant was an inscrutable character. He spoke little, wrote little, remained faithful to his wife, and seems to have devoted all the extravagance in his nature to alcohol. He had been an indifferent student at West Point and a conscientious but undistinguished young officer. The years just before the Civil War were the lowest for him--all his business enterprises had soured. Grant had the opposite of the Midas touch: everything he put his hands on turned to mud, and his chronic drunkenness had led to his forced retirement from the army.

In short, in 1860 no one would have predicted that Ulysses S. Grant would become "the most famous man in the world," as one of the many incidental characters in Grant describes him. Shyness and a gift for profound silences began to work to his benefit later, during his political career. In a rare glimpse into his subject's inner world, Byrd follows the general's meandering train of thought as his advisors plot his third presidential campaign.

Outwardly, he was sure, nobody could have told that his mind was elsewhere, lazily turning over thoughts, memories, making similes. His mental process, he believed, resembled an old Missouri farmer digging at a stump, slowly prying it up from the dirt, excavating his idea.... He knew he seemed silent, impassive; he knew other people mistook that for strength.
It is a mark of the General's elusiveness that Byrd chooses not Grant himself but two reporters as his main characters. Sylvanus Cadwallader is a seasoned and cynical Chicago news hound. Much of what we learn comes from his no-holds-barred biography of the great commander, marked "not for publication" on the cover. His fellow journalist, a younger man named Nicholas Trist, was injured at Cold Harbor during the war, losing an arm to Grant's insistence on pushing through the rebel lines at any cost. Trist takes the opportunity of Grant's renewed presidential ambitions to return to Washington from Paris as a foreign correspondent. Within a few hours of his arrival in the capital, he falls in love with Elizabeth Cameron, the wife of a senator. Days later, he is granted an interview with Mark Twain. Soon he is acquainted with Clover and Henry Adams, and receiving the cherished confidences (for print, of course) of the general's closest advisors.

Trist's story is as interesting as Grant's, though on a smaller scale. The most vivid touches in this novel, however, are Byrd's incidental depictions of our continuity and discontinuity with the past. Although Nicholas Trist can read a sign advertising "Ivory Soap--99 and 44/100ths percent pure," he can also glance up at the wall of the Baltimore and Ohio Railway Station in Washington and see seven clocks to which travelers adjust their watches, since each railroad company operated on its own time. Byrd's sense of fun pervades the novel and recalls his distinguished antecedent, Gore Vidal. He may not offer Vidal's magisterial sweep, nor his corrosive wit, but Byrd shows a similar infectious pleasure in bringing history to life. --Regina Marler

From Publishers Weekly

The third installment in Byrd's series of political/historical novels (Jefferson; Jackson) is informative and entertaining historical fiction. Although it's touted as similar to Gore Vidal's sensational American chronicle series, Byrd's literary mentor is more like Henry James, as the book features dense prose, a mannerly plot and psychologically real characterizations. A fictional character, journalist and author Nicholas Trist, is the center of this loosely constructed churn through the politics and society of the 1880s. Trist is a one-armed and embittered veteran of Cold Harbor who has spent his years since the Civil War in self-imposed exile. Sent home to America by a French magazine to cover Ulysses S. Grant's bid for an unprecedented third term in 1879, Trist is initially bulldozed by Sen. Don Cameron, Grant's campaign manager, who vows to give the reporter access to Grant only if he'll write laudatory accounts. Elizabeth, Cameron's young and lovely wife, instantly attracts Trist's interest, and the first half of the novel is paced by their parries as the pair seek the courage to consummate their passion. A storm of Washington politics swirls in the background, and the cast of characters is fleshed out by credible portraits of Samuel Clemens, Sylvanus Cadwaller, William T. Sherman, Clover Adams and, of course, Grant himself. In the second half of the book, the action jumps ahead to the next election year and traces Grant's decline into bankruptcy and fatal disease as he frantically tries to complete his memoirs in order to save his family from penury. Trist and Elizabeth get together, but here Byrd makes a tactical mistake (the same one Vidal commits in Empire), by trying to shift the focus to Henry AdamsAwho, as a character, remains a caricature of a conceited and often cruel cynic. Byrd's research and literary knowledge are impressive, but while his re-creation of period detail, including product placement (Ivory Soap, E.C. Booze whiskey and Heinz Pickles), is excellent, there are a few anachronisms. Even so, this is a fascinating read for any serious student of period when modern politics and society were being mapped out of the smoky shadows of a devastating war. Agent, Virginia Barber. (Aug.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam; First edition (August 1, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0553096338
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553096330
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,903,934 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
A surprising and fascinating book. Author Max Byrd follows the same basic structure as in his previous historical novels Jefferson and Jackson: youngish writer with one foot in Europe and the other in America tries to penetrate the essential mystery of the title character by researching the collected and conflicting observations of well-placed contemporaries. In Grant's case of course, the essential mystery is how Sam Grant, an alcoholic and utter failure approaching 40 years of age, could become U. S. Grant, the man who took command of the oft-beaten Union Army and saved his country, becoming in the process a future two-term president and "the most famous man in the world". Our protagonist, the fictional writer Nicholas Trist, was maimed in the war under Grant's command and thus has every reason to hate his former commander. As he works through his feelings about Grant and more details of various parts of Grant's life are revealed, we draw our own conclusions as well. The events of the novel take place after Grant's military and presidential careers are concluded and concern his attempt to obtain a third term and the well-known (and here well-told) efforts of the bankrupt and dying Grant to complete his memoirs in order to provide for his family. As expected in a book of this nature various real-life personages appear throughout (e.g. Mark Twain, William Tecumseh Sherman). Unexpectedly, one of these characters emerges as the subject of the novel just as much as Grant is. In real-life, famed 19th-century historian Henry Adams expressed his contemptuous dismissal of Grant's abilities and so Adams' prominent role in the book is no surprise, especially given his irresistibly (for a writer) vexatious personality .Read more ›
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Format: Paperback
A historical fiction about Grant beginning in the fall of 1879 and ending with his death in 1885. It begins when the Country and specifically the Republican party is looking for a Presidential candidate. Grant is not actively campaigned for the nomination which, if elected, would make him President for a third term. The author, Max Byrd, uses an interesting technique of describing Grant's persona by telling stories, some well known and some not, about people who touched his life. Some of the people are friends and some frankly, are enemies. Byrd uses a fictitious newspaper reporter as the forcing function to tie the many stories together into an enjoyable and informative novel. Somewhat distracting for me was his technique of hyphenation--that carry substantial and granted informative amplification but in some cases goes on for several lines--to make his point. I enjoyed very much the detailed pictures that Byrd paints of the life and times of Washington D.C. The Republican convention was held in Chicago in 1880. Byrd does a nice job of describing the activities of that gathering where Grant had over 300 votes, but insufficient for nomination. Garfield was continuing to advocate John Sherman and then on the thirty-sixth vote the convention rolled-over and nominated Garfield himself. While the words, or course, are Byrd's creation, most of the characters are real. I found it interesting to take the book and walk around the area near Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. and see the houses where Grant and the other characters came and went. Many interesting facts...for example, I was surprised to learn that Mark Twain convinced Grant to let the publisher that he owned publish the Memoirs of Grant. Twain paid him in advance because Grant's investment partner, Ward, had embezzled all their money. Byrd also has written similar fictionalized novels about Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. I plan to read both of those as well.
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Format: Paperback
This book is a terrific evocation of an era, largely ignored in American history. By painting the shadows around Grant, I thought Byrd gave us "The Gilded Age" replete with the co-author (Twain) himself. Byrd has a rare gift for historical portraiture and wonderful storytelling. For those looking for more biographical facts on Grants life, see Jean Smith's excellent one volume biography.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The title of this book, "Grant: A Novel" is misleading, since Ulysses S. Grant appears in only 50% of the pages. Instead, Byrd has chosen to divide the book into a number of subplots, one of which completely compromises the readability of this novel (the plot involving Mr. Trist). Why he chose to use this method will remain an eternal mystery, because these fictional characters ruin an otherwise good read.
Byrd makes a number of factual gaffes concerning Grant, but his psychological analysis of this complex man is excellent. Curiously, he omits much reference to Grant's wife, Julia, who was an integral part of his life, and his treatment of Grant's children, though brief, is facile and inaccurate. He also makes many mistakes in the time frame of the novel (Twain was not meeting with Grant weekly in 1880) and his scenes with Grant and Twain never ring completely true. Grant was a much more multi-dimensional character than the monosyllabic Sphinx depicted here.
Still, Byrd writes well when he focuses on Grant, which he should have done at the exclusion of his irritating and ultimately defeating subplot involving Mr. Trist. Anyone with a serious interest in the real Ulysses S. Grant will concentrate on non-fictional examinations of his life and avoid this book, which is inaccurate and not particularly interesting.
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