Huge chunks of 20th-century history are handled with elliptical finesse in Christopher’s fourth novel (following A Trip to the Stars, 2000): an episodic picaresque with bits and snatches reminiscent of Doctorow’s Ragtime, Millhauser’s Martin Dressler, Purdy’s Malcolm, and Woody Allen’s Zelig.
The eponymous protagonist (so named for the train whose wreckage he survived as an infant) is first seen in 1929, when, aged 22, he likewise escapes the fats of many ruined by the stock market crash. Thereafter, we observe Franklin during the years 1930–42, as his dreams of becoming an inventor and acquiring great wealth (“to prosper, to do good, to explore”) take him to several continents, astonishing adventures, and relationships with several enchanting women. In Antarctica, he weathers a storm at sea and is rescued by a Norwegian freighter; in Buenos Aires, he protects a teenaged tango dancer from her abusive father—just before joining a mountaineering expedition in search of the valuable metal zilium (which will be coveted by Hitler’s scientists). Franklin moves on to Alabama, and a lingering infatuation with black blues singer Narcissa Stark, then forms various bonds with socialist guru Justinian Walzowski and pulp publisher Otto Zuhl, while dallying romantically with multiple partners and pursuing a briefly glimpsed mystery woman who may be named Anita Snow. The threat and outbreak of war engage Franklin in covert work for OSS chief “Wild Bill” Donovan, and a plethora of international intrigue and espionage seemingly deployed to illustrate the truth of the principle Franklin had derived from Marcus Aurelius: that “nothing ever disappears, it’s merely transformed.” Much of this sophisticated hoo-hah is highly enjoyable, but it whizzes by too quickly: the story’s calculated hit-and-run structure distracts almost as much as it entertains.
At one point we’re informed that “Franklin felt as if events—history itself—had been speeded up to a lunatic pace.” So will the reader.