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.