(Gival Press, 2010)
Second Acts is a novel about time travel, a hermaphrodite Native American guide named Bunny who invents therapy, the world’s most beautiful labia, and the 19th century version of Oprah. Somebody, please make this movie!
Dan Connor, a network administrator geek, time travels from the year 2015 into the past to follow his estranged wife, Rachel (possessor of aforementioned labia) who, along with her University of Chicago physicist boss, has become one the first people to accomplish the feat. All parties land successfully in the wilds of 19th century Illinois, near Chicago. When Dan discovers Listening Rabbit (nicknamed “Bunny”) on a vision quest, she volunteers to be his guide. Believing her to be a rather homely young woman, he’s later surprised to find out she’s actually a two-spirit “berdache”—one of the most interesting aspects of this well-researched novel—with a gift for listening (thus, her name). The two follow the trail of Rachel and her boss, Bruce, through the woods to the big town, and then by boat from Chicago to New York. En route, they encounter various real historical personages: Albert Gallatin (founder of New York University), Sylvester Graham (early advocate of dietary reform and inventor of the Graham cracker), the Locofocos (radical faction of the Democratic Party circa the 1840s) and Lydia Maria Child (abolitionist and activist for the rights of Native Americans and women). The seamless weaving of these real characters into a plausible fiction narrative about time travel is the novel’s strength (as is the way in which all loose ends are tied up in a highly satisfying and logical conclusion).
Weak, however, are Connor’s descriptions of the scenery he encounters upon arrival in the Illinois woodlands of bygone days (the future site of Fermilab, where the giant Tevatron particle accelerator is housed). If you found yourself in the bucolic expanse of 19th century New York City, in the environs of what you would later know as the 14th Street/Union Square subway station, wouldn’t you be amazed, eager to report your findings? The descriptions here seem rushed and perfunctory, like Brown is hurrying to get to the good stuff. But these details are the good stuff, and I couldn’t help compare Connor’s reactions to those of Si Morley in Jack Finney’s Time and Again, who finds himself in N.Y.C. in 1882. While the New York of Time and Again is not as “real” as the Illinois woodlands of Second Acts, Finney’s descriptions are both detailed and intimate, and Morley’s amazement at what he’s seeing is palpable. This is one of several missed opportunities in an otherwise successful experiment, and these misses are especially glaring in an epistolary novel (Rachel’s narrative, in diary form, plays off Connor’s). And the evolving character of Bunny, probably one of the most fascinating in contemporary fiction, gets glossed over at important moments: just how does this gifted, marginalized person become the successful person she is in the end? We get the build-up, and the basic facts, but we hardly ever see her in action.
That said, though, the plot points are brilliantly stacked and, in a novel like this, that amounts to a feat in itself. Spoiler alert: Connor and Rachel do find each other, but that’s really not the point, when the journey itself is so fantastic.