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 Much of what we learn comes from his no-holds-barred biography of the great commander, marked "not for publication" on the cover.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.)
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