Tom LeClair's Lincoln's Billy is a work of revisionist historical fiction somewhat similar to Thomas Berger's Little Big Man or Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. Like those novels, it refuses to take iconic American history at face value, presents a version of that history at odds with received wisdom and national myth-making. LeClair in fact confronts the most iconic figure of them all, Abraham Lincoln, whose heroic façade is even harder to pierce than the always rather dubious General Custer or the mostly unknown Mason and Dixon.
Lincoln's Billy most conspicuously contrasts with these predecessors in its scale. They are prodigious, expansive picaresque narratives that question fundamental beliefs about the nature and direction of American history. Lincoln's Billy is more compact and restrained, more narrowly concerned with conveying an impression of Abraham Lincoln somewhat at odds with the brooding but dignified Lincoln presented in popular biographies and films. The novel accomplishes this by taking the form of a first-person narrative purportedly written by William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner in his pre-Presidential days in Springfield, Illinois. The novel's title ironically echoes the title of Herndon's 1889 biography of Lincoln, Herndon's Lincoln, a book that at the time was itself attacked for offering a less-than-worshipful account of Lincoln, covering his unhappy marriage to Mary Todd and his bouts of depression (referred to in Lincoln's Billy as "the hypos").
"After devoting many of the last twenty-five years to Lincoln's biography," writes "Billy," "I decided to compose this brief autobiography. . .to set the record straight about me--and about Lincoln." Billy thus does tell us the story of his life with Lincoln during their partnership, but also after that partnership, the period of Herndon's life otherwise likely to be considered an afterthought by historians, for whom Herndon's time as Lincoln's associate is his main source of interest. Still, his story always circles back to Lincoln, and to Billy's ambition to tell the truth about the now martyred President, and so his autobiography also becomes a kind of shadow biography of Lincoln, the kind of truth he wasn't able to relate even in the published biography (produced in a collaboration with another writer, about which Billy ultimately seems ambivalent).
Although Billy's narrative essentially proceeds chronologically from Lincoln's death up to the publication of Herndon's Lincoln (as it turns out, Billy is writing his account just on the cusp of his own death), it does feature numerous digressions, as Billy looks back on his partnership with Lincoln. We are offered many putatively authentic conversations between Billy and "Mr. Lincoln," as Billy persists in calling him, conversations that take us back, often with Lincoln speaking in his quaint "Kaintuck" dialect, to Lincoln's experiences as a flatboat driver, his time "riding the circuit" as a lawyer, his boyhood problems with his father. Billy and Lincoln have frank talks about religion (Lincoln is revealed as a thoroughgoing unbeliever), politics (Lincoln always saw the world through a political lens), and, of course, race relations (Billy is a more vigorous abolitionist than Lincoln, and he often tries to get Lincoln to remove that political lens and confront the simple evil of slavery).
Ultimately, the most important revelations about Lincoln come from his recollections of the flatboat days, when his job was to take the flatboat and its cargo down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Here the Kentucky bumpkin is initiated into the ways of the world, and he does not flinch from them, however much we might want to think that "Father Abraham" would know little of such things. The most sensational revelation is held back until near the end of the novel, when we learn about one of Lincoln's activities in particular that may have profoundly influenced his later thought and actions related to slavery and emancipation--although even here Lincoln remains enigmatic, and we can't finally know exactly how his "secret" affected his decisions as President. Billy can only speculate.
Despite all of the disclosures about the "real" Lincoln, the "truth" about him only makes him seem more human, less the living statue his posthumous adoration may have made him. This is Billy's intention in writing his supplementary book, and LeClair himself succeeds in having his narrator fulfill this intention. Of course, Billy must finally still be considered a not entirely reliable narrator; his own story of ultimate failure--as a lawyer, as a farmer, perhaps even as a husband--raises the possibility he is motivated by a latent envy of Lincoln, a belief in his own moral superiority. Billy assures us that in the end Lincoln's caution was the right response to the national crisis he was attempting to manage, but in general Billy portrays himself as less willing to compromise with evil, although certainly he recognizes that Lincoln's agonizing sense of responsibility while President belies the notion that his political calculations were made in his own self-interest.
Billy shows no ambivalence at all toward Mary Todd Lincoln, whom he clearly detests. Indeed, living with her is one of the burdens Lincoln bears that only increases Billy's sympathy for him. (Even if it doesn't help him to understand why Lincoln married her in the first place.) Mary makes one actual appearance in Lincoln's Billy, followed up by a visit from her son Robert, both of whom try to convince Billy not to publish his biography full of "gossip" about the Lincolns' marriage and Lincoln's previous courtship of Ann Rutledge, allegedly his one true love. "Poor Robert," writes Billy, "Deputized by a mother ruled by the selfishness that Lincoln maintained ruled everyone, the Martyr's Son might eventually get free of her but never of the role she had assigned him as protector of a myth."
"Words are what Lincoln left me," Billy asserts in the novel's penultimate chapter. The "words" are those passed between Lincoln and Billy in the law office, and they are the words that reveal Lincoln to be a man, not a myth. If they are words that Tom LeClair has, for the most part, invented, they ring true enough in evoking a man of Lincoln's experience and temperament. LeClair is the author of an important critical work, The Art of Excess (1989), a study of the "mega-novel" in contemporary American fiction, and some readers might be surprised to find him in his own fiction producing, if not a mini-novel, a work of much more modest scope. In its quieter way, however, Lincoln's Billy manages not to just "re-create" a period in history, but to alter our perception of it.