Haves and have-nots go at each other with fateful ferocity in this Gilded Age melodrama, a vigorous follow-up to the author’s lively Elvis and Nixon (2001).
Employing techniques patented in E.L. Doctorow’s classic Ragtime, Lowy re-creates the gaping social inequities of turn-of-the-century America, focusing on a dozen or more mostly historical figures. Civil War veteran William McKinley rises through the Republican ranks, anointed as his party’s business-friendly 1896 presidential candidate by kingmaker plutocrat Mark Hanna. William Randolph Hearst, who backs “free silver” Democrat William Jennings Bryan, uses the power of his newspapers (and the energies of muckraking reporters like young Ambrose Bierce) to oppose McKinley and, after his election, foment a war with Spain to destroy his credibility. Condom magnate Morris Vandeveer runs afoul of anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock and feels the wrath of outraged puritanism. Russian immigrant radical Emma Goldman “travels throughout the East, the Midwest, speaking, lecturing, rallying,” and inspiring the downtrodden—notably, young Polish immigrant Leon Czogolsz. His brooding sense of injury, dating from the preventable death of his pregnant mother when his family could not afford a doctor, ignites when he meets Goldman; he vows he’ll honor her injunction to “keep up the fight” on behalf of the countless underprivileged and oppressed. The narrative’s already lurching momentum accelerates impressively as Czogolsz stalks the reelected president to the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, fulfills his mission, and embraces his fate, as, in a different way, does Goldman. There’s a certain guest-appearance slickness to some of the episodes, but Lowy has done much more than his homework, and his story’s integrity and power inhere in superbly imagined characterizations of the unshakably decent, stoical McKinley, demonic egotist Hanna, and the haunted, wretched, yet paradoxically gallant Czogolsz.
A high-water mark in the ongoing renaissance of the historical novel.