Book Review: The Last Days of Night

last days of night

Random House, 2016.

I have two favorite periods in American history: the colonial and Revolutionary era and the Gilded Age. Perhaps what fascinates me most about these two particular periods is that, in each, America is recognizable as America, but it’s also on the cusp of becoming something new, something even more familiar to a modern American. During the Gilded Age, it’s the emergence of the financial and manufacturing empires and the technological advances like the telephone and the automobile that turned America into its modern self. One of the most revolutionary of all Gilded Age advances was the switch to electric power and its use in creating light.

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore is the fictionalized retelling of the “current wars” of the blossoming electric industry and its transformation into the form familiar to us today. During the “current wars,” Thomas Edison holds the patent for the lightbulb, but George Westinghouse is making a better one—and he’s harnessed the superior A/C current. But Edison brings a series of lawsuits against Westinghouse and it looks like Edison will eventually win the years’-long war of attrition between them. Westinghouse, in a last-ditch effort to find a fresh solution to his legal troubles, hires Paul Cravath, an extremely young and inexperienced recent graduate of Columbia Law School.

Paul Cravath is someone with whom it is easy to identify. He’s smart and he’s lucky to have a good job and be selected by George Westinghouse. But he’s stuck between his humble Tennessee roots and the expectations of the glamorous New Yorkers with whom he rubs shoulders. After being personally intimidated by Edison, Paul determines to beat the manipulator at his own game. Yet he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He navigates threats and deception and makes more than a few rookie mistakes. He also falls in love, but feels unworthy of that love as a New York outsider. Paul is always striving—to stay ahead of Edison, to impress Westinghouse, to be worthy of love—but along the way he is tempted to cross the line and become the very thing he hates, a man without honor.

Paul Cravath

Paul Cravath, Wikipedia.

In the beginning, Paul sees himself in the business of telling moral stories—making a narrative from the facts, telling who was bad and who was good, “until the righteousness of his plaintiff or his defendant became overwhelming.” But in the “current wars,” it quickly becomes hard to distinguish the good from the bad. And what will become of Paul himself? Reading his story leaves me asking the question: is it possible to keep your honor, to not stoop to deception or intimidation, in trying to win battles of this scale? Making a profit and coming out ahead is not inherently a dirty business, but what do you do if you stand to lose everything when your opponent stoops to manipulation, or even violence? In the end, Paul “committed his own sins to prove that Edison’s had been greater.” Moore makes the case that it’s possible for the underdog to win in big business, but there’s inevitable collateral damage and an immense personal cost to character. There are no longer clear boundaries between good guys and bad guys.

The birth of something new is inherently painful. I think most people would agree that many of these “titans” of modern industry were also “robber barons,” but it is less likely that we think of the inventors and revolutionaries of the same era as having just as shady a past. After all, we read about them from youth upward in brightly illustrated books, observe their history displayed in museums, and think of “progress” and “The American Dream.” Reality is not often so clear-cut. The Last Days of Night dissolves our illusions about the inherent altruism of innovators and cautions us for the future.

Reading The Last Days of Night is a rich and rewarding experience. Moore brings to life the two radically different inventors, Edison and Westinghouse, the bizarre genius Nikola Tesla, the famous opera singer Agnes Huntington, and the intimidating financial baron J.P. Morgan. Paul travels from the glittering, yet still dim, streets of New York and the lush Delmonico’s restaurant, to the farms of Nashville, Tennessee, and the specialized laboratories of Westinghouse and Tesla. Under the influence of Moore’s pen, America in 1888 becomes a living, breathing place.

The Last Days of Night is perfectly well-paced and suspenseful. From the opening scene in which a lineman burns to death on an electric wire, to the first attempted execution with an electric chair, the novel is atmospheric and suspenseful. Moore captures the spirit of an era in which anything is possible, yet there is great uncertainty. The switch from gas to electric light was by no means guaranteed.

I was inspired by how Graham Moore put his interest in this historical story to use. Each of the major figures portrayed here was a historical person with a fascinating story. But because there is little scholarly research about Paul himself, Moore turned to writing fiction rather than biography. This seems like a risky business, and as I am not an expert in the subject area, I don’t know if he did the characters justice. However, there is a chapter-length section at the end of the novel that explains how he made his character and plot decisions and the changes he made in order to make the narrative flow. So, in the end, I can’t tell you if The Last Days of Night is true, but I can say it was marvelous entertainment.

★ ★ ★ ★/5 stars