Saturday, February 4, 2012

Jackson by Max Byrd

A young man attempts to write a life of Andrew Jackson while a pretty young woman flirts with him

I have not read much historical fiction because I am not particularly drawn to it. Doesn’t the author feel constrained in the building of the story? Is historical fiction art? Or is it more like an educational textbook? What is its purpose? To delight? To instruct? My guess is that most people read historical fiction to learn something. The veneer of fiction makes the history part go down as easier, as when you give the child a tablespoon of cod liver oil followed quickly by a tablespoon of M&Ms.

For the most part Jackson is delightful, more fiction than history. The author does this by inventing a few characters who are quirky – whose actions cannot be predicted, unlike the historical characters who cannot deviate from what they did in life. David Chase, the invented young man, has a clear motivation. His actions move the story along-- he is hired to write a life of Andrew Jackson and hopefully find some disgraceful dirt about Andrew Jackson’s wife. David Chase serves as a detective and every novel needs a detective.  

The dialogue and descriptions are light and easy, not didactic. Max Byrd is a skillful writer. But the story had some drawbacks and started to drag. The meat of it, Andrew Jackson’s life, is a Procrustean bed for a plot. The reader has to waste time at the Battle of New Orleans with its fortifications as that was Andrew Jackson’s most significant achievement. However, the Battle of New Orleans and its fortifications are not very dramatic. Also, I’m not sure if in this type of traditional historical fiction we can ever see Andrew Jackson as a living breathing person, he can never be quirky, his actions are always completely predictable. His spine is always ramrod straight, there’s always a steel blue glint in his eye and a tender vulnerable love for his woman in his heart. The interesting thing for me was the fact that Andrew Jackson kept dueling people right and left. I needed to hear more – that sounded wonderfully crazy.

In some ways this novel reminded me of Stations of the Cross – no irreverence allowed and you must hit all the high points. Almost like a James Bond movie. Is all historical fiction like that?

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