Book Review: “Halcyon” — Plodding Speculative History
By Daniel Gewertz
How could such a multitalented guy go so wrong with such a clever concept? It wasn’t easy.
Halcyon by Elliot Ackerman. Knopf, 237 pages.
The jacket-flap description of the novel Halcyon serves up a magical wish fulfillment for left-leaning readers. Here’s the first line: “Virginia 2004. Gore is entering his second term as president.” The next lines reveal another, far-larger dream come true: a cure for death itself. One of the novel’s main characters has successfully been brought back to life to rejoin his patrician family, though he died five years before at age 85.
The jacket-flap bio of author Elliot Ackerman is also a lure for readers because the writer has an extraordinary background. As a Marine veteran, he served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, ending up a captain. He’s a winner of the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart. He has written a book about the tragic flaws of that latter war. Before his soldiering he graduated summa cum laude from Tufts, and, after the wars, added on a Masters from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Halcyon is his ninth book in nine years.
How could such a multitalented guy go so wrong with such a clever concept? It wasn’t easy. Part sci-fi, part history, part character study, Halcyon somehow manages to avoid excitement, humor, and depth.
The novel utilizes a first person narrator with a personality so understated he’s downright boring. The prose is precise, even needlessly exacting at points. Martin Neumann is a history professor on sabbatical; he is working on a book largely about the achievements of another historian, the well-known Shelby Foote, who argued that the spirit of compromise is the essential attribute of the United States. To assert this supposedly beautiful American compromise, 90 years of brutal separatist Jim Crow laws and endless murders of Black citizens are conveniently overlooked. Martin’s birthplace is not specified, but his pro-South sentiments are clear enough: he is the kind of academic who gets all dewy-eyed at the thought that, if only General Stonewall Jackson had not been accidentally shot and killed by his own troops, the South might have won the war.
Martin rents a cottage on the estate of the wealthy lawyer Robert Ableson, a hardy patrician of 90 years. The main house is named Halcyon, presumably because the word suggests both prosperity and calm. Before too long, however, Martin discovers that his affluent landlord has come back from the dead, one of 120 lucky beneficiaries of secretive “cryo-regenerative” research completed during the Clinton and Gore administrations. At the press conference announcing the miraculous news, the first questions asked by the assembled press ignore the miracle entirely. They just pepper poor Gore with questions about his intentions regarding pardoning Bill Clinton. The scene is a rare piece of sharp satire.
In the political world created in this speculative novel, there were audiotapes discovered in the Clinton White House that proved Bill not only received oral sex from Monica Lewinsky and lied about it, but that he somehow forced her to comply, so it was a case of rape. With this taped, Nixonian evidence, he is promptly impeached, Gore takes over, and convinces the citizenry that he’s an okay leader. He narrowly beats Bush in the 2000 election. (The jacket-flap info is factually wrong: Gore isn’t entering his second term as the book opens, he’s merely in the final year of his first.)
In a single line, Ackerman adroitly explains that Osama Bin Laden was found and killed within three months of 9/11. So, Gore maintains America’s peace and eradicates the inevitability of death itself. But that’s not enough to keep him in office given the uproar over his pardon of “rapist” Bill. Robert Ableson — who turns out to be a mega-hypocrite — raves on and on about Gore’s hypocrisy. But it is the hatred that Martin has for Slick Willie that seems strangely fanatical.
Mid-book, a petition to tear down a Robert E. Lee statue accrues two million signatures. But Ableson’s skullduggery ensures that most of the petitions are deemed flawed. Ableson has dismantled the good work of his loyal ex-secretary, yet he claims it was really doing the deluded lady a favor. Though our narrator is well aware of Ableson’s duplicity, he agrees with him that toppling Confederate statues is tantamount to a destruction of history itself.
In the longest scene of the book, thousands of Virginia college students demand the statue be removed. Both Ableson and our narrator are baffled by the crowd, which is angrily chanting “Burn Baby, Burn.” The pair belittle the students’ moronic choice of words, since a statue can’t be burned. “Burn Baby, Burn” is very well known as a chant from the 1965 Watts riots, so the narrator’s complaint comes off as either a racist slur or an insult to white kids imitating Blacks.
Please don’t get the impression that Halcyon is consumed with medical miracles and political maneuvers. Many pages of the novel plod along at a sluggish pace, the story concerning itself with such dull matters as Martin’s difficulties with his dissertation, and the Ableson family’s quarrel over an inheritance that is now moot because the dead man is now undead. And then there’s a long, complicated legal case that appears so wildly unlikely it doesn’t deserve further description here.
The novel is also rife with small, convenient coincidences. Mid-novel, there is a chance meeting between Martin and a ne’er-do-well teenager in a convenience store — one of the rare scenes to effectively capture moment-to-moment real life. But then the boy recognizes Martin from the statue protest, and knows more about him than seems plausible. The scene becomes a labored attempt to reframe the book’s theme.
If a first-person narrator isn’t interested in opening up about himself, he’d best use his personality to light up a story. Ackerman refuses to reveal Martin’s inner feelings or his life history: it is past the midway point when the novel’s protagonist mentions he is Jewish. He promptly drops the subject. If he is also Southern, is that not an identity issue worth pursuing? One review describes the book’s impersonal first-person narrative as akin to Nick Caraway’s in The Great Gatsby. That’s like saying Dick Nixon’s speeches are similar to Franklin Roosevelt’s because they both used microphones. Bottom line: whether personal, impersonal, or unreliable, a first-person narrator needs to engage the reader.
Daniel Gewertz has been influenced by the people he has interviewed for newspapers and radio, including jazz artists Ray Charles, Sonny Rollins, Artie Shaw, Dizzy Gillespie, Jay McShann, Gil Evans, Dave Brubeck, Keith Jarrett, Steve Swallow, J.J. Johnson and Milt Jackson; roots musicians B.B. King, Bill Monroe, Brownie McGhee, Vassar Clements, Phil Everly, Roger Miller, Carl Perkins and Bo Diddley; folkies Libba Cotton, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Leonard Cohen, Rambling Jack Elliot, Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn, Steve Goodman and John Prine; classic popsters Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Eartha Kitt and Pearl Bailey; and film/theater artists Louie Malle, Edward Albee, Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Susan Anspach, Yul Brynner, Michael Douglas, Diahann Carroll, Jewel, Jack Klugman and John Sayles. Daniel’s first live interview, at age 16, was with Art Garfunkel in 1966.