On St. Helena island in 1821 a mysterious doctor removes Napoleon Bonaparte’s penis from his corpse while in the next room his loyal lieutenants brag about their dead emperor’s merciless cruelty. Fifty years later the search for this itinerant appendage leads through Victorian London to ante-bellum New York, Amherst, Massachusetts, and finally Colorado Territory, dragging in its path a promiscuous mix of French counts, love-sick poets, dandies, shady antiquarians, utopian dreamers, con men, and a pieced-together homunculus named Bonnie. The French want to re-member their empire, the English relic-seekers wish to recover a valuable prize, and Bonnie wants to complete his diminutive body. Along the way, John Vernon corrects history’s mistake by arranging a meeting between the two great American poets, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. And Whitman’s friend, Peter Doyle, the dandified streetcar conductor at the center of it all, saves the lives of a family abducted by Indians with an ingenious use of Napoleon’s “dingus,” as he calls it. From the half-completed Brooklyn Bridge to Horace Greeley’s Union Colony in Colorado Territory to the Rocky Mountains and the canyons of the Green and Yampa rivers, this sprawling novel creates its own manifest destiny by mixing fact and fiction with shameless joy. Peter Doyle’s brand of speculative historical fiction corrects history’s minor errors while vividly describing its major ones.
“Vernon’s great virtue is his style–smart, marvelously specific, insightful both about large issues and small ones. The novel contains a wealth of fine sentences, and a wealth of sharply delineated objects. Reading it is rather like going into the world’s best and most fascinating antique store and watching everything, on every shelf, in every drawer, draped over every rack, be made new again. This is not a novel to be devoured, but to be browsed over and savored.” – Jane Smiley, The Boston Globe
“Peter Doyle is not just a novel, it’s a conjuration–a darkly comic, exciting, can’t-put-it-down, joyous chase of a book. Twisting and turning from history to fantasy, from picaresque to romance, from Europe to Colorado, this is a grand old stem-winder told with great zest, invention, and flair.” – Ron Hansen
“Vernon is a superb writer, and most of Peter Doyle is a thrill to read. Here is a funhouse-mirror distortion of American dreams, American eccentricities, and American tragedies, offered with sly purpose and cracked wisdom.” – The San Francisco Chronicle
“A magical mystery tour of the 1870s and ’80s, from a memorably squalid New York to the wide-open spaces of the Colorado Territory. . . . A furiously bubbling stew of all manner of ingredients, a grab bag stuffed to the bursting point with the real and the invented.” – Angela Carter, The New York Times Book Review