By Michael Byers
Henry Holt & Co., 432 pp., $27
Poor Pluto. Once Planet X, then the Ninth Planet, then a mere planetoid, Pluto has always been the runt of our astronomic litter, a hazy spot at the edge of the solar system. Pluto is tiny and weird, drifting in its own oblong orbit. And with Percival's Planet, the epic new novel by Michael Byers, we learn that even Pluto's discovery was a happy accident.
Percival is a big book in every way: The story begins in 1928 and ends in 1990, and in an era of breezy, 200-page bestsellers, Byers grants himself more than 400 pages to tell the tale. There are eight major characters, including astronomers, paleontologists and a boxer. But the pillar of this story is Clyde Tombaugh, a young prodigy who works his family farm, suffers through the Depression -- and ends up building a homemade telescope that aids in the discovery of Pluto.
At its heart, Percival is a true story, and Byers spent the better part of a decade researching its particulars. Byers taught English at Pitt before moving to the University of Michigan, and the Percival project followed him from one school to the next. As a result, Byers spares no detail; when he describes Clyde grinding his own telescopic lens in the privacy of his parents' cellar, he writes with precision and authority. Names and dates are accurate, as are most relationships. What Byers invents are the inner monologues -- great tapestries of thought and feeling that illustrate the obsessive nature of scientists in an age of discovery.
Given all this intensive research, Byers might have written a straight biography. And it would be easy, in fiction, to reduce this story to literary docudrama -- the endless shelves of Civil War and Queen Elizabeth novels come to mind. But Byers is a novelist's novelist. His prose is rich and imagistic. He labors over every scene, allowing tangents and dramatic swelling, as patient with his characters as Clyde is patient with his glass-grinding.
Here, Byers describes Alan, a staff astronomer: "[He] is sort of in love with Lowell Observatory anyway, a poor boy from Ohio one generation out of the stony fields of County Athlone and no mistake he can feel sort of baronial here walking the creaky corridors, it is Harvard on a private budget, it is the sahib's big house above the Martian hills." Byers is playful with his descriptions, mixing his vast vocabulary with period phrasing.
In a way, Percival is about serendipity. The scientists network and toil, but when they finally discover Planet X, it's a lucky break. That Clyde Tombaugh escaped his weather-beaten farm -- or even survived his adolescence -- is an unlikely twist of fate, and Byers illustrates, in sumptuous passages, just how bleak Clyde's future should have been. When he is finally called to the Observatory, Clyde shows rare smugness: "Because it is the last time he will have to do this [farm] work, he almost enjoys it this year. He was never meant to be down on the farm, he thinks now with satisfaction." But knowing the hard road Clyde has traveled, readers may marvel at his unlikely good fortune.
Not everyone will love these scientists as much as Byers does. They will give up halfway through, describe the book as "a little too dense," and re-gift it. But for readers who have the tenacity to finish, Percival has its rewards. We almost forget, a couple hundred pages in, that the story ends in Pluto -- this fact of modern science. But that's hardly the most important part of the book. Percival is a smart read, a lovely read, and no matter what Pluto is, planet or planetoid, Byers' own world is just as interesting.
Michael Byers discusses and signs Percival's Planet 7 p.m. Fri., Sept. 17. Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 510 S. 27th St., South Side. Free. 412-381-3600