In LeClair’s (Passing Through, 2008, etc.) novel, Abraham Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon, wants to "provide a naturalistic and profound analysis of how different traits combine to form a complex individual" when he writes the great man’s biography.
Lincoln’s a martyr. Herndon wants the Emancipator’s story told by someone other than "religion-based hagiographers." After all, Lincoln was an "infidel," a nonbeliever. Is Herndon reliable, or is he "Judas in Springfield”? Herndon’s Lincoln employed his "Kaintuck" mannerisms when useful, offered stories, some ribald, punctuated by a "high whinny laugh," but he was always "forthright, frank, true, plainspoken." Neglecting his law practice, Herndon sets out to "wage my own civil war against a confederacy of secessionists from the truth," only to grow bitterly frustrated over betrayals by Lincoln intimates and then by Jesse Weik’s Herndon’s Lincoln, a collaborative effort for which Herndon received little recognition or compensation. The narrative is easily followed, conversational rather than riddled with the 19th century’s florid verbiage, with Lincoln rendered as a man in full, especially as Herndon relates Lincoln’s fractious relationship with his father, his deep love for Ann Rutledge, and his stuttering courtship and marriage to Mary Todd. It is, however, from escapades during Lincoln’s flatboat trips to New Orleans as a young man that Herndon proposes reasons far different from the apocryphal observation of a slave auction that shaped Lincoln’s opposition to slavery. Herndon’s a sympathetic though flawed observer, intent on truth-telling—Lincoln not as "a prairie demigod or Christian saint." LeClair’s Herndon—like Lincoln, "a man of fused contradictions"—struggles through his own failures to reveal the enigma that was Lincoln.
Herndon’s an interesting fellow, but Abraham Lincoln is the book’s star.