by Dana Spiotta
Despite the violence and political rhetoric that seems rampant in today's America, particularly in the darker corners of the internet, there have been many times in our history marked by violent acts against the government or other large faceless entities. This kind of thing isn't new, and if one delves deep enough, there isn't a decade that hasn't been marked by some kind of insurgent violence. Most of the time, this violence has been small, ineffectual. Occasionally, it has been large and brutal. People have died in acts as small as the Symbionese Libration Army (SLA) killing of an Oakland school official, to as large as the Oklahoma City Federal building bombing that killed 168 men, women and children. Of course, we are marked by killings that are only marginally political, as well. We're a violent society without the guts to really face that violence.
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, there were acts of left-wing violence that punctuated the news, a dull roar behind the relentless reporting of death in Vietnam. Young people, wrestling with their own powerlessness in the face of a country they saw as gone mad, acted out and committed what seem to be almost random attacks, some of which resulted in high profile deaths and the kidnappings of the occasional heiress. In some of these cases, the rebels went "underground", living, sometimes for decades, with their secret past. A few of them have resurfaced in suburbia, to serve at last some time for their past actions. We speak of the Weather Underground, the SLA, Black Panthers and others. This novel tells us the story of a couple of these aging underground revolutionaries and their interaction with the world today. Indeed, as the kids of today rebel against the corporate world order, these older activists find themselves dealing with a kind of ambivalence about the long term ineffectiveness of their own actions but with a grudging respect for the kids and their own perspectives on a corporate, globalized, electronically-intertwined world.
Mary and Bobby have gone underground, and we're not sure who is who at the start, as their identities have shifted and changed with the years. Nash runs an alternative bookstore in Seattle called Prairie Fire (a nod to remnants of the Weathermen). Henry suffers from PTSD and Agent Orange poisoning and alleviates his pain with small actions against the company that makes his antidepressants. The kids form little modern revolutionary cells that spend more time discussing action than taking it. A couple of them are willing instead to be co-opted by their corporate overlords. Meanwhile, after decades of living anonymously, their elders consider finally giving themselves up to come to some closure in their own lives.
All of this is wrapped up in this back and forth narrative, jumping from story to story and tied together with its theme of rebellion and redemption. There is no clear antagonist, and the protagonists have complex feelings about their world, such as the suburb-raised kids who have a nostalgic longing for the comfort and anonymity of the suburbs. The author keeps us guessing a bit, preferring to be somewhat oblique on the moral outcomes to be had, and giving the book a somewhat incomplete feeling. Despite the occasional narrative excess (as in its description of an upstate New York women's commune), there is a low-key moral argument being made, and the book's rewards are the vivid recognition of the world we live in now and its recent antecedants. An interesting portrait.
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See Also: [Fugitive Days by Bill Ayers]
[Other books of the 1960s and Counterculture]
[Other books by Women Authors]