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We're All Forrest Gump

Looking for the heart of the 20th century

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Biographies are popular for a reason. People are fascinated by other people -- particularly "famous" ones. We know some aspects of the lives of the people that interest us: typically, the beginning of their life, their "crowning achievement," and their death. What we desire is color, by way of background. And if these lives happen to have some sort of parallel to our own -- or better yet, speak to the human condition as a whole -- all the better.In that sense, William Boyd's new novel, Any Human Heart, has everything and nothing to do with the biographical form. Boyd fashions his novel through a series of biographical "journal entries" that purport to catalog the life of one Logan Mountstuart. Mountstuart, a bit of a prodigy, starts out covering the Spanish Civil War. Soon enough, he becomes confidants with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, gets sketched by Pablo Picasso, and becomes something of an art maven. He also variously works under James Bond creator Ian Fleming in British Naval Intelligence, spends time in a POW camp, gets involved with a terrorist gang, and winds up as an art dealer. Mountstuart, it seems, lived the kind of life that's stranger than fiction. Except, of course, for the fact that it is fiction, despite the reviewer-friendly index, afterword, and "Works by Logan Mountstuart" page at the end of the book.

Why does it work so well, outside of the fact that the Zelig-like Mountstuart rubs up against some of the biggest movers and shakers of the last century? It's because we don't know the ending. Reading a retrospective biography is something akin to reading a story about the Titanic -- no matter what happens beforehand, you know the ship is going to sink at the end. We all pass on, and can only hope we leave a nice literary corpse.

And this is, ultimately, a biography of us all. The exciting, name-dropping plotline of the novel isn't by accident. Boyd's use of Mountstuart as a universal character demands that the story hold the reader's attention, rather than any internal dialogue or conflicts that Mountstuart may experience. Says Mountstuart, "Every life is both ordinary and extraordinary -- it is the respective proportions of those two categories that make life appear interesting or humdrum."

In Boyd's capable hands, Mountstuart is something of an Everyman, a guy with serious potential attempting to get ahead in life the best he can. Granted, this particular Everyman is prescient enough to buy early paintings by Paul Klee and Juan Gris. However, Boyd gives the reader such a textured, fly-on-the-wall imagining of 20th Century history that it's easy to forgive the Forrest Gump-like ride.

Scratch that. Even Forrest Gump never had such a history. After Ian Fleming gets Mountstuart a position in Naval Intelligence, he takes a job spying on the Duke of Windsor, the exiled former king. Jailed after the assignment, Mountstuart is unaware that World War II has ended. He soon finds himself in Nigeria, teaching and covering the Biafran War. As his life winds down, he becomes a radical, and finally, an art dealer (thanks, no doubt, to those original Klees).

The title, Any Human Heart, works as well as any. All of us, if we make the right choices -- and sometimes, the wrong choices -- can conceivably live a life similar to Mountstuart's, as long as we make sure we infuse whatever choices we make with the appropriate passion. This may mean, as with Mountstuart, that we converse with some of the greatest minds of our generation, and sit in Paris cafes sipping coffee. Or, it may mean that we're fated to mingle with some of the greatest hearts of our generation, fighting for what we believe in, both at war and at home.

Better yet, we might even take a cue from our fictional "hero," and do both. As any look at television will show, Everymen like him are indeed a rare breed.

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