Jonathan Lee’s The big mistake is a novel so deeply imbued with American literary history that it is somewhat surprising to find that its author is in his 40s from Surrey. It’s as if Lee, whose three great earlier novels include a reimagining of the IRA bombing of the Brighton Grand Hotel, has distilled over a century of American letters into one book. There is Fitzgerald, of course – Gatsby the magnificent is repeated in more than the title of the novel. There is Hemingway in the muscular lyricism of prose; Sherwood Anderson and Steinbeck in the beautifully drawn portraits of rural America; there is the restraint of Henry James in the winding sentences; and then there are a host of lesser-known writers who have taken turn-of-the-century New York and the tumultuous excesses of early capitalism as their subject matter: Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and Upton Sinclair.
The big mistake examines the life of a great American, Andrew Haswell Green, through the lens of his death. Green could claim more than anyone to be the father of modern New York. Raised on a hardscrabble farm where he was deemed too feminine and nearsighted to wield an ax, he rose to prominence first as a Crusader lawyer, then as the architect of Manhattan’s union with Brooklyn. and Queens – a movement called by its detractors the “Great Mistake of 1898”. Green was a man as careful in his private life as in his public works: he was devoted to his “close friend,” Samuel Tilden, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 1876. Green founded the Public Library of New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, above all, that breath in the heart of the city, Central Park.
Lee opens his novel with the death of Green, shot dead on the steps of his Park Avenue home at the age of 83 by a man named Cornelius Williams. The tale then creeps back and forth between the bloody present moment and Green’s past, seeking to uncover the reason for this seemingly needless murder. Lee has a lot of fun with the conventions of the mystery novel, with the elements of detective procedure in its history, and with the weirdness of New York at that time – large herds of pigs roamed the city; there was a bounty on the heads of his packs of wild dogs. Against this exuberant narrative, more serious and contemporary themes emerge. Green’s assailant is black and we find out that he spent a year working on a plantation in Trinidad – could his murder have something to do with his slavery past? There is also the question of Green’s sexuality; Tilden was often said to have been elected president if he had married. Lee handles the relationship between the two men with exquisite delicacy, telling a love story that the two might not have recognized as such only in retrospect.
It may be fitting that at a time when the great American novel is at its lowest – smelling too much of the gentleman’s club for our enlightened age – a Briton should write what is likely to be the best American novel of the year. . The big mistake is a book of extraordinary intelligence and style, written in a language that is both beautiful and playful aphoristic. It is a novel whose protagonist – decent, worthy, wounded – will live long in the minds of those who read it, a novel that unreservedly fulfills Lee’s precocious promise.