Joshua Furst questions fallout from activism in “Revolutionaries”

Author Joshua Furst Photo: Michael Lionstar

Years ago, when playwright and author Joshua Furst was a young teenager, he stumbled across a book at the local community college. “Steal This Book,” the title said. So Furst stole it.

The book, written by Abbie Hoffman, a leading activist in the 1960s counterculture movement, provided Furst with an introduction to this glorified part of American history. It also gave Furst the basis of inspiration for Lenny Snyder, the central muse of his new novel, “Revolutionaries”.

In his second book, Furst paints a fascinating and heartbreaking portrait of New York’s Lower East Side in the 1960s and early 1970s, an era of revolution that, in the bird’s eye view both vast and intimate of the novel, sparks of a tangibly hoarse energy, before giving way to the dark and tragic withering that followed.

Lenny is presented as the leader at the heart of this awakening political consciousness – the whole philosophy of the 1960s alone feels evoked by the influence of his charismatic will. Hoffman can be seen in some of Lenny’s origins and lawless political stunts, as other real-life characters of the era – Allen Ginsberg, William Kunstler, Phil Ochs – come in and out of the frame.

“It was kind of a game that I started playing on my own, mixing a fully developed fictional reality with factual reality,” says Furst.

Most of the book, however, is purely fictional, especially when the story explores the inner lives of its characters, primarily the relationship between Freedom, Lenny’s son and the narrator of the novel, and his father and mother. Our window into this era is provided by an adult Freedom (who prefers to go through Fred), recounting his childhood in the gritty chaos of the Lower East Side and under the careless and often cruel shadow of Lenny.

“Freedom speaks to where we are right now in American history from his childhood because the gulf between the two (periods) seems so irreconcilable that the only way to understand what happened to him and his world is to look the scars of his childhood, ”says Furst.

“Revolutionaries”, by Joshua Furst. Photo: Knopf

Granted, the novel never refers to our present, but Freedom’s memories of that time, their staunch opposition to common ’60s freedom-loving tropes, implicitly speak of our modern moment and its “closure of all real ability.” to imagine a future that holds hope for people who have not already come from a safe place.

“It was a much darker time and a lot more violent, and a lot more lucid about the things she was trying to change than we currently believe,” Furst said.

Lenny and the cast of real characters he plays wanted to “open up a space where what is human is the guiding principle by which society can be organized” – to free America from what Furst calls the lasting coalition of religion. puritanical and capitalism. “The story is, these people were successful in changing America. The reality is they failed.

What happened instead was a heartbreaking deterioration that Freedom witnesses from these visionaries. This more honest account of the movement may be a way to make sense of the present, not only for Freedom, but also for Furst himself, who was born in the same generation and who himself grew up under nomadic ‘hippie’ parents. radicals ”. “

“Why was my generation so complacent? Why did we let the game get lost on our watch? ” he says. “It’s largely because we saw our parents’ failures… that we became proactively cynical. Our protest was ironic. Our protest was a T-shirt.

Furst is therefore not optimistic about the future amid our fractured moment in America. For Freedom, he said, probably even less.

“Until we start tackling the real roots of the problem, which are the alignment of surveillance states through Silicon Valley and global capitalism and how it despises humans at all times, I don’t think so. not that we’re going to solve problems. “

But even in the midst of its grim truths, the book, Furst hopes, might produce a different answer. “I hope readers feel in their bodies, in the sparks in their minds, this challenge and take it to the streets – the power of it,” he says. “I hope they take some sense of human complexity away from even heroic people. I want there to be a little forgiveness for those who try. It is better to try and fail than to simply fail.

Joshua Furst: Author in conversation. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday August 13. Free. The Booskmith, 1644 Haight St., SF

Thelma J. Longworth