I was Lincoln’s Billy. Billy club when Lincoln refused to knock heads in Springfield. Billy goat when he needed a battering ram to reach Washington. Billy boy when he required a charming Billy to scare up money for his campaigns.
So begins Tom LeClair’s absorbing new novel, Lincoln’s Billy, the ersatz memoir of the martyred president’s long-time law partner in Springfield, Mass., William Herndon. Jerome Charyn observes in the Daily Beast: “Herndon is one of the great riddles of Lincoln scholarship, almost impossible to unravel because of his many incarnations—lawyer, abolitionist, mayor of Springfield, impoverished farmer, collector of Lincoln legends, and town drunk. Billy failed at almost everything he did. He failed to publish an unexpurgated biography of Lincoln, so Tom LeClair has stepped in to write this bawdy expose of young Lincoln, a tough sinewy novel about the very nature of narrative voice. The book reads like poetry disguised as sandpaper.”
Like LeClair’s five previous novels, this carefully researched work subtly urges us to question the reliability of stories and our instinct to believe what we are told. The very title is nice piece of sleight-of-hand switcheroo: in life Herndon may have been Lincoln’s Billy, but in this book we see Billy’s Lincoln.
Herndon comes across as a wholly reliable narrator – indeed, the one man willing to portray Lincoln as he was. Neither sinner nor saint, Billy’s Lincoln is warm, funny, coarse and libidinous; he’s a somewhat unhappy, altogether practical man.
He is not a great man, but a man, for the most part, like any other because that is how LeClair’s Herndon, as opposed to history, saw him.
One feels so much in the presence of Lincoln, that it takes some effort to remember that this is work of fiction. This task is all the harder when so much of what LeClair recounts is based on established fact – except, that is, for a pivotal, personal revelation about Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery.
Lincoln’s Billy is a thoughtful, highly entertaining version of our 16th President.
Tom LeClair’s Top Ten List
1. Gravity’s Rainbowby Thomas Pynchon (1973).
2. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936).
3. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851).
4. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922).
5. Endgame by Samuel Beckett (1957).
6. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor (1952).
7. Paradise by Toni Morrison (1997).
8. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000).
9. End Zoneby Don DeLillo (1972).
10. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996).