You’re unlikely to find a wittier, more ingenious, more compulsively readable novel this year than Tom Carson’s latest, a satiric revue of the dearly departed American Century starring an 86-year-old woman who saw it all. The daughter of that charmer whose “voice is full of money,” as gold-hatted Gatsby said of Daisy, Pamela Buchanan tells what happened after the last mournful pages of “The Great Gatsby”: how her mother became a morphine addict and died in Belgium; her boarding-school days under the guardianship of kindly Nick Carraway (who is contemplating writing a novel about his late West Egg neighbor); and then her Zelig-like participation in some defining moments in the 20th century.
She describes Broadway theater life in the late ’40s; the home front and Europe during World War II — she was on Omaha Beach on D-Day; Hollywood in the early ’50s as it transitioned from the big screen to the little home version; Camelot as seen from West Africa in the early ’60s as an ambassador’s wife; and then Washington, D.C., for the latter half of her life. She comforts Lyndon Johnson during the final days of his presidency, spars with Norman Mailer before the March on the Pentagon in 1967, and shakes her increasingly gray head at what follows in “Potusville” until her 86th birthday on June 6, 2006, the long day on which this novel takes place.
Logging on to her Web site at 6:22 that morning, Pamela begins posting a daisy-chain of blog entries, narrating the story of her life with a freedom her previous editors never would have allowed. (She became a journalist in the early ’40s, which is how she got to see so much.) That liberated voice, more than the story itself, is what makes “Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter” such a joy to read. “I do feel a mad glee at yoicksing on without a second look,” she exults as she rides madly off in all directions in a maximalist style where no noun lacks an adjective, no pun is too low and no allusion is too far-fetched. Addressing many of her entries to her teenage great-granddaughter Panama, she describes the sexual freedom of the war years:
“In mimsied retrospect, Panama, 1942’s carnal throb leaves the Sixties looking like amateur hour. In ways we octogenarians have kept tenderly veiled from our generation’s Brokawing hymnalists, the home-front war was our Woodstock: an orgiastic engine we gave ourselves over to, from U.S. Steel blasting smokestack lightning to Detroit’s purple haze and Eleanor Roosevelt Rigby fluting away. By the time we got to D-Day, we were golden. Fulfilling a national fantasy we hadn’t known was one until Yamomoto’s planes turned Mamala Bay into blue acid, we were all part of the same galvanizing, mud-bathed movie.”
And that’s a typical passage, not a rare swatch of purple prose. Incapable of being boring, Pamela is as witty as Wilde, as punny as Joyce. Pam’s first editor warned her “only against excessive whimsy,” but with no Strunk & Whitewashing editor to rein her in, the old gal revels in the whimsical excesses of the lexicon as she dramatizes the successes and failures of the American Century.
It’s not all pun and games. At the dead center of the novel is Pam’s grim description of the concentration camp at Dachau, and her account of how the news of Kennedy’s assassination struck her little diplomatic community is superb. Her dramatization of LBJ’s despair in 1968 as the country (and his career) fell apart is so moving that one can almost forgive the big lunk for prolonging the Vietnam War. Almost. And her seething anger at the Bush administration in 2006 drives her to plan to commit suicide as soon as she receives the congratulatory phone call she expects on her birthday. She has a pistol in her lap as she races to blog as much of her story as she can before the phone rings, and you know what Chekhov said about a pistol in the first act. But you’ll never guess how Carson handles that.
Better known for his savvy essays on media than for his too-few novels — his previous one, “Gilligan’s Wake” (2003), contains a chapter called “Sail Away” that serves as a prelude to this longer novel — Carson works that sweet spot where highly literary prose reads like a gossip column. If “The Great Gatsby” didn’t quite reach the green of the Great American Novel — it’s too short for such a big country — “Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter” lands within putting distance of the grand old flagpole.
Moore is a literary critic whose latest book is “The Novel: An Alternative History.”
Ron Charles will be back next week.