Francis Spufford’s boisterous and superb new novel, GOLDEN HILL, pays homage to 18th-century fiction — and most English majors worth their salt will have some idea what that entails.
However, for those who didn’t major in English (and now make real money), older novels feel surprisingly strange. Their odd punctuation, spelling, and sentence structure — not to mention clunky plot devices and long digressions — can be off-putting. Reading an 18th-century novel requires patience if not fortitude.
Yet Golden Hill is a wonder. Spufford has taken the form, freshened it up, and still preserved its old-style charm. At heart, the story is a mystery: a young Englishman arrives in colonial New York with a fortune at his disposal. Ducking and dodging all attempts to pry anything out of him. Smith refuses to divulge who he is or how he plans to use the money. He keeps everyone, including us, guessing to the end.
The novel is also a refrain of that age-old tale in which a naif arrives in a large metropolis and finds himself duped by its worldly denizens. As a new acquaintance warns him, “things can get out of hand very quick,” and they do: Smith finds himself in scrape after scrape — he is robbed, beaten, chased, jailed, seduced, and challenged to a duel. He even falls in love.
The New York Spufford paints is no shining city on the hill, nor a reborn Athens. On the surface, its streets and rivers teem with commerce, people are tall and healthy, there is less stench than in London, fewer drunks, and no beggars. Smith is pleased by its seeming wholesomeness.
But that’s at first blush. While its citizens talk at length about their “liberty and virtue, virtue and liberty,” slaves are paraded through the streets, the Pope is burned in effigy — and in the midst of a drunken riot, Smith is mistaken for “a f____ Papist” and nearly killed.
Ah, but back to happier things: the novel’s full-blown comedic action. Like much of 18th-century fiction, Golden Hill is a funny, raucous, and bawdy adventure story. We have Terpie Tomlinson, an actress, whose magnificent, heaving bosom leaves every male aquiver. There’s Governor Clinton’s vacuous, yes, um, speech, uh, yes, in celebration of the king’s birthday. And that drunken riot where Smith almost loses his life? It’s followed by a madcap dash through alleys and streets, crawling through windows and up ropes, and ending on slippery rooftops.
Most hilarious is our sometimes chatty narrator who, at one point, attempts to describe the rules of a complicated card game — but finally has to give up. (It’s like a Brit trying to explain cricket to a Yank — futile):
—Wait—wait—alas the explanation is bungled, but it cannot be recalled and started over again, for the game has begun. We are out of time, with little enlightenment secured.
Speaking of “enlightenment secured,” we must wait till the last few pages to be enlightened as to Smith’s identity and the gist of his “errand.”
But wait—wait—alas, my friends: we are not yet finished: there is still one more delicious revelation in store for us at the very end. But you won’t find it out in this review. Oh!—Indeed—what a marvelous treat is Golden Hill !
Philip J. Adler
P.J. teaches high school AP English. After dusting off the blackboard chalk, he pens essays and reviews (and works on his desk-drawer novel). An avid reader and self-proclaimed nerd, P.J. leans to sci-fi but also enjoys nonfiction—science and technology, history and current events.