Byrd (Jackson, 1997; Jefferson, 1993; etc.) continues his vigorously eclectic presidential series with an intricate view of politics, passion, and scandal after the Ulysses S. Grant presidency, though this story falls short of the high mark set by its predecessor.
One-armed but well-connected Nicholas Trist, wounded at Cold Harbor in the Civil War, has returned from Paris as a journalist in 1880 to cover Grant’s effort to be reelected for a third term. But a chance encounter with the breasts of Elizabeth Cameron, enchanting, flirtatious young wife of the brutish senator who’s Grant’s campaign manager, has given him something else to think about. Through a period of becoming a Washington insider, through visits with the likes of Henry Adams—the preeminent Grant-hater, intellectual, and cold fish—and through a rowdy Republican convention in Chicago, in which Grant has only to appear in order to be nominated (but doesn’t, and so isn’t), Trist seeks a tryst with Lizzie, but she flees from the heat of his desire. Several years later, he returns from abroad again, this time as a successful travel writer, to work on a book about the battlefields of the Civil War. He’s drawn once again into the salon of Adams and his self-effacing, long-suffering wife Clover, and, overtaken by a thunderstorm one day while giving Lizzie a battlefield tour, finally begins the affair he’s sought for so long. Meanwhile, his book goes nowhere, so, forced to become a reporter again, Trist covers Grant’s last days as America’s hero battles with disgrace and throat cancer to finish his memoirs. Once the small, quiet man with the ever-present cigar is gone, Trist’s own tenuous connections to an ever-more electric America seem to slip from his one-handed grasp.
Trist’s detachment is both blessing and curse here: he’s sympathetic, but he also simply passes through the tumult of his years in America—and through what is otherwise an impressively complex work of historical fiction.