Jonathan Lowy, . . Crown, $23.95 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-609-60819-7

Lowy's second novel (after Elvis and Nixon ) is a scattered but compelling account of the assassination of William McKinley at the hands of Leon Czolgosz at the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y. Czolgosz is an enigmatic figure, and Lowy does a good job of filling in the blanks with a failed love affair and moments of anguished alienation that explain in realistically messy terms why a man would commit such an extreme act. Lowy occasionally engages in commentary that pushes beyond its usefulness as stage-setting—as in his distracting protest against the turn-of-the-century marriage of big business and politics—and he sometimes succumbs to pontification when encapsulating the era's clash of revolutionaries and robber barons. He makes up for this, however, in his colorful pictures of the era's giants: robust McKinley and his frail, haunted wife, Ida; megalomaniac newspaper magnate Hearst; eccentric socialite/condom peddler Morris Vandeveer; anarchist icon Emma Goldman; and McKinley's handler, "Dollar" Mark Hanna, gigolo father of the modern political campaign. In the end, the novel stays true to the mission of good historical fiction, which is to dispel the textbook notion of iconic events as either planned or inevitable. Czolgosz and McKinley are real people in Lowy's hands, motivated as much by love and fear as politics or ideology, and often confused as they unwittingly write the pages of American history. Agent, Deborah Grosvenor . (Jan.)