REVOLUTIONARIES: A NOVEL
By Joshua Furst
Alfred A. Knopf: 352 pages, $26.95
It is difficult to write historical fiction about recent history. This is because history itself is, or has become, its own kind of fiction, told and retold, preserved in sound and image, as if they were windows we could open and cross. Want to see Abbie Hoffman at the 1968 Democratic National Convention? Just type the words into a search engine, and there it is, as if it were never dead. Phil Ochs at Folk City? A swipe or three, and you’ve traveled back in time. It’s less of an issue when stepping into an era before our electronic preservation mania began to overwhelm the present with the past. But at a time when memory has become collectivized, “a dumping ground for dreams. A Sargassum of the imagination”, to borrow an expression from Nathanael West, we know too much and also too little. Or, maybe the strands – what we can look up and what we think we remember – intertwine inside us, until the line between history and fiction is irrevocably blurred.
This is both the challenge and the problem facing Joshua Furst’s second novel, “Revolutionaries”. Told by the adult son of a 1960s radical named Lenny Snyder, the book works almost entirely in retrospect, both for us as readers and for its narrator. Lenny is a proxy for Hoffman, sharing big chunks of the late leader of the Yippie movement’s biography, and his son, now known as Fred, short for Freedom — “Call me Fred. I hate freedom”, he announces in the first sentences of the novel, a revealing double meaning – is desperate to come to terms with the father he never really knew. Furst, a contributing editor at Forward, telegraphs these intentions with his epigraph, taken from Che Guevara: “The true revolutionary is guided by a true feeling of love.” This is the conundrum of the book, and it suggests that the title is both ironic and wholly un-ironic, setting up a story that will use politics to explore the inadequacies and complications of the heart. As Fred observes in a neutral tone, thinking about his parents:[T]he truth has always been the opposite of what you were told it was meant to be.
The idea of reframing the radical sensibilities of the 1960s through a romantic lens is not new; I am thinking of Dana Spiotta’s ‘Eat the Document’, Hari Kunzru’s ‘My Revolutions’ and Christopher Sorrentino’s ‘Trance’, all of which examine revolutionary politics as an almost existential search for meaning, the material for personal transformation as well as public. . Like the first two of these books, Furst’s novel seeks a sort of context, that of the survivor looking back. Like the third, he confuses fictional characters with historical personalities: Allen Ginsberg, William Kunstler, Bobby Seale. But if Sorrentino had a narrative reason for this kind of mixing – in his novel, which reimagines the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, those who lived through the tumult were reimagined, while those who died were not – Furst never quite makes a similar aesthetic case. Rather, its actual characters seem to be included primarily for the sake of verisimilitude. Even when factored into the narrative (Kunstler, for example, becomes Lenny’s lawyer), it’s more or less like a facade, or maybe a set of reference points.
That’s especially true for Ochs, the pioneering folksinger who, along with Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, helped found the Yippies and hanged himself in 1976 at the age of 35. Throughout “Revolutionaries”, he functions as a surrogate father for Fred after Lenny (much like Hoffman) is arrested on what he has always claimed to be false cocaine charges and then goes into hiding. For Hoffman, the arrest represented a kind of fulcrum, a turning point. It was the 1970s and the revolution had died down; the drug was less a source of liberation than another straitjacket of servitude. Lenny, on the other hand, is not so nuanced. He has no other defense than to justify himself. “As if they weren’t coke too,” he grumbles at his son at the end of the novel. “Like the whole world wasn’t coked back then.”
What sets such an exchange apart is that it’s one of the rare moments in “Revolutionaries” in which Fred and Lenny interact as adults. For the vast majority of the novel, the perspective is much tighter: Fred reminiscing about the events of his childhood with no real indication of what happened in the decades that followed. It’s unclear if such a strategy is aimed at engaging us as collaborators, filling in the gaps in the story – which is a blur of another kind. The more we see Hoffman in Lenny, or Rubin in Sy Neuman’s character, the more we read with double vision, superimposing the real person on the fictional person. Whatever the intention, the effect is to leave us in an uncertain middle ground where neither the story nor the fiction is expanded enough. The same goes for the book’s narrow focus, the way Fred barely comments on his story, even though it’s clear he’s telling it from the perspective of a present moment in which he seems to want nothing so much than put aside his past. “By the time Lenny was the age I am now,” he admits, “he had changed the world – or so he would have claimed. What about me? I’m just a Dude who did some carpentry. Some bathroom restorations. I supported myself by staying out of sight.
All of this raises a series of necessary questions: Why is Fred telling us about it now? Even more: where is it while discharging? Also: Who asks him to talk about his father’s life? On some level, these investigations are central to all fictional first-person storytelling; believing the voice is the first in a series of necessary suspensions of disbelief. At the same time, the fact that we never get the answers reduces the scope, the perspective of the novel, making it a bit claustrophobic, a bit small. The difficulty is not the story which, like Hoffman’s life, is alternately romantic and overplayed. Here, we see the price to pay to become an icon: that your identity can collapse under the projection of all those who hold you in their gaze. This is as true for Lenny as it is for Hoffman; this is even true, to some extent, of Fred.
Without this broader sense of context, of Fred’s motivation, of what it means to him, “revolutionaries” never quite transcends. “[M]maybe,” he thought to himself, “it was the freedom that Lenny and my mother had dreamed of, but to me it felt more like wasting away in nothingness.”
David L. Ulin is the author or editor of 10 books, including “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms With Los Angeles.” He is the former book editor and book reviewer of the Los Angeles Times.