Relive the ’60s counterculture in “Revolutionaries”

By Joshua Furst

The 1960s have settled into our cultural memory as a charged, dissonant symbol, overloaded with contradictions. It was a time of love and bloodshed, a vision of peace floating on a tide of war, the era of Woodstock and Altamont, John Lennon and Charles Manson, nonviolent protest alongside armed resistance , civil rights, psychedelia, police brutality and domestic terrorism. What we remember depends on the abandoned dream we wish to resurrect. But shake off the drugs, the sex, the rock ‘n’ roll, peel off the stratified commodification of the era, and what remains to be distinguished is the poignant awakening of a culture coming to terms with its own consciousness.

Joshua Furst’s second novel, “Revolutionaries,” is about the children of post-war tranquility who, appalled by the unspoken arrangements that underpinned their childhood, spilled out of the suburbs and into the streets. It is about those who really wanted to say it – neither those who play at insurrection, nor the ideologues who, in their sincerity, betray a fatal affinity for dogma. Furst is more interested in agitators, troublemakers, dreamers and prophets: those whose imagination feeds the movements, and who provide a glimpse of the new world to come.

The central figure in this story, Lenny Snyder – a slightly fictionalized Abbie Hoffman – resembles the “oldies” as the “counterculture’s Sid Caesar.” Equal parts Trotsky and Alfred Jarry, a Marxist groucho at heart, Lenny confides in his son, Freedom (Fred), that he’s never encountered a system he didn’t want to blow up. He and his gang of pranksters — a mix of real characters, like Phil Ochs, and real character stand-ins, like Sy Neuman (Jerry Rubin) — drop dollar bills on New York Stock Exchange traders, carry lincoln building trash In the middle, send joints to establishment bigwigs and nominate a pig for president. In Washington, “they lifted the Pentagon off its foundation, levitated it 24 feet above the Earth” in psychic protest.

Much of this is historical. Like Hoffman, Lenny cut his teeth with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and honed his tactics by staging stunts on the streets of Manhattan. His charisma and stage inventiveness fit perfectly with the ascendant mass media of the time, with the subversive symbolism embedded in his protests allowing him, he says, to have “won by losing”, pushing the powerful to go overboard and pulling from the ironic latitudes of poverty to point out the hypocrisies of convention. Freedom, you might say, is just another word for losing nothing.

Thelma J. Longworth