Book Review: The Daredevils by Gary Amdahl

amdahlCharles Minot is the son of wealthy, politically connected parents who run a theater in San Francisco. After the 1906 earthquake destroys their theater, Charles’s father reminds him of a Virgil quote: “Nothing unreal is allowed to survive.” Charles takes that to heart and reopens the theater, where he practices avant-garde techniques and starts to fall in love with Vera, a working girl from Connecticut who is rising in the ranks of the city’s radical labor activists. After the theater is bombed, either by radicals or by people who learn of Charles’s radical affiliations, his father gets him a job in Minnesota mediating between wheat farmers and businessmen in the lead-up to World War I. Charles meets up with Vera, and together they delve more deeply into the rougher side of labor relations and union politics.

I wanted to love this book. Amdahl’s premise is an intriguing one: a young, American aristocrat/capitalist drawn into the dark, often treacherous, world of labor activism in the pre-World War I years. And while his writing is at times witty, humorous and thought-provoking, more often than not it bogs down in a confounding display of language that hinders the reader’s investment in character and plot. Amdahl is focused on the “reality vs. stage” – Virgil’s nothing unreal allowed to live – so much so that he sacrifices plot for concepts and philosophical ruminations. Prepare for an investment of time and reflection when reading this book.

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Review originally appeared in HNR May 2016: https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/the-daredevils/

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