The Building of a railroad across America in the mid-19th century is a marvelous situation for a historical novel. Consider the intrigue, the passion, the politics, the ambition, the high finance and high adventure and any number of other delicious possibilities. Consider the ingredients -- yellow fever, clipper ships, clanging iron, the Sierra Nevada mountains, New York board rooms and San Francisco bawdyhouses, nitroglycerine, the Civil War, blizzards and deserts, Irish and Chinese. It's enough to send dust-jacket prose to dangerous levels promising a "lavish epic," hardy men and courageous women," influential tycoons," "alluring ladies" and all the rest. "A Man of Destiny" has lots of promise on its dust jacket.
There is only one problem with the cliches attached to this hefty 569-page clunker -- they're fraudulent. Not one inch of track is laid until the final chapter, and then, in 35 pages the whole transcontinental railroad is built, complete with golden spike at Promontory Point.
And that's the interesting part. This is not a novel about building a railroad, it's a novel about waiting to build a railroad. Graham Masterton, a former executive editor of Penthouse, succeeds in giving one of the greatest adventures of the 19th century all the excitement of a race between garden slugs. In Collis Edmonds, the builder of the "Sierra Pacific" railroad, we have a supremely dull little man hwose life as a hardware store owner and small-time cad utterly fails to convince us that he possesses a consuming vision to unite the nation with iron tracks. Yet all the surrounding characters stand back and do everything but emit low whistles in admiration of his alleged passion to bring about his achievement.
We are supposed to do the same, apparently, for Masterton tells us that, in fact, Edmonds "ate, drank, breathed and slept the railroad." And when we doubt that Edmonds has the vision, Masterton quickly puts those doubts to rest. "I have a vision," Edmonds says, and that, presumably, is that. Unfortunately, vision is created through action, not statements. When one of Edmonds' partners tells him, "You feel something about [the railroad] that I can't even begin to understand," we know all to well what he means.
The problem is that Masterton is content to tell us what the vision is rather than demonstrate it, and so the whole premise never gets off the ground. rIn fact, the whole railroad never gets on the ground until we are driven to distraction with the talking of it.
It is also annoying to have 19th-century Americans advising each other to "have your priorities sorted out," or discussing their "options," or admiring each other's "style" or worrying if their marriages will "work." Nor would a bawdyhouse madam, in those pre-Freudian times, discuss sexual "discipline" as the need of powerful men to compensate for thier power by placing themselves "completely at the mercy of someone else." These are more than historical anachronisms like wristwatches or ice cubes (which also appear here decades before their time); they show fundamental insensitivity to the perceptions of the era that are essential to a historical novel's integrity. One cringes in fear that sooner or later Edmonds' wife will reassure him that when it comes to railroad passion, she knows where his head is at.
For all the many novels set on the western frontier, their is no shortage of raw material for another good one. This tedious slow freight, unfortunately, is not one of them.