Fiction collides with historical realism in Altman’s (Hollywood East, 1992) novel about a young man whose boldness finds him on a quest for success in early 20th-century New York City.
A child of New York’s Lower East Side, Harry Sirkus is thrown out of his element when he’s suddenly orphaned and relocated to a small New England town. While still too young to understand his parents are gone, he is abandoned by his uncle, who places him in an orphanage, promising to return with great fortune. Harry finds himself on the receiving end of charity and sympathy, getting Thanksgiving dinner and pitying looks from his classmates. This humbling experience serves Harry well—he becomes determined to make something of himself and to do it on his own. When the orphanage closes, he dodges a would-be assignment to be a farmhand in Kansas and buys a one-way ticket to Boston. Through amazing resourcefulness and a lot of good luck, Harry works his way into the growing film industry, finally making his way back to a very different New York City than the one he left as a child. Harry’s fearlessness finds him befriending stars and working for Fox News, unwilling to be shut out of any opportunity. While Harry is an endearing character readers can root for, the story itself is somewhat more enigmatic. The plot becomes lost in finite and mundane detail, characters drift in and out of Harry’s life while only sometimes taking any effect, and the period’s rich and famous lend the novel most of its shine. The movement of the story is guided more by a play-by-play account of the historical context than the narrative’s own velocity, and Altman ultimately weaves in so many supporting characters’ storylines that none stands out in a compelling way.
History enthusiasts will enjoy Altman’s characters, fictional and real, though the general reader may struggle with the slow plot.