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HALCYON by Elliot Ackerman


by Elliot Ackerman

Pub Date: May 23rd, 2023
ISBN: 9780593321621
Publisher: Knopf

A novel of alternate history, life everlasting, and American democracy in peril.

In this version of the recent past, President Al Gore has assumed office after a perjury conviction drove Bill Clinton from the White House, and he has his hands full in a sharply divided and polarized country. First-person narrator Martin Neumann is a historian and college professor, on leave to write his next book, “a study of postbellum attitudes on the Civil War...and what the historian Shelby Foote termed ‘the great compromise,’ a cultural reconciliation between North and South that followed those blood-soaked years.” Foote's interpretation has “fallen from favor,” Neumann’s department chair tells him. Ackerman wants to explore whether nuance and compromise are possible where others see black and white, right and wrong. His narrator has “become obsessed with the role of compromise in the sustainment of American life,” a notion that has fallen from favor as polarized opinions became louder and more rigid. Recently divorced, he's also obsessed with his own alternative histories of what might have been. He's spending his sabbatical on an estate with the ominous name that gives the novel its title, where his landlord is the legendary Robert Ableson, a legal lion and champion of liberal causes, now retired and in his 90s. And very spry, for reasons the novel will reveal but signals in its very first sentence, informing the reader that “resurrection, a new life, had become a scientific possibility.” In 2004, when the novel opens, there are all sorts of further complications to the context—Gore plans to pardon Clinton, statues of the Confederacy are sacrificed to historical revisionism, conservatives want to shut down scientific progress. The historian and his landlord both find that their perspectives and attitudes, once perfectly acceptable, now put them on the wrong side of history. The narrator seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, or at least the future of democracy as we know it.

A novel of ideas in an age of opinions.