Hippies and Yippies in Historical Fiction
In June, 1967, Abbie Hoffman, the antic gadfly of the Vietnam years, wed his second wife, Anita, in a hippie happening on Central Park’s Great Lawn. That August, he rained dollar bills onto perplexed—and then madly grasping—traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Two months later, he participated in a wishful attempt to levitate the Pentagon, and the following year, with Jerry Rubin, he led the prankish Youth International Party (the Yippies) toward the bloody fray outside the Democratic National Convention. At the subsequent trial of the Chicago Seven, he was convicted of crossing state lines to incite a riot. Hoffman was still appealing the verdict in 1971, when he and Anita became the parents of a son. Jonah Raskin quotes the new father in “For the Hell of It” (1996), his biography of Hoffman: “We decided to call our kid america because we believe that when the state finally fades, nations will be named after people and people will be nations.”
In the late sixties, Hoffman, who was born in 1936, always looked, and was, too old to be doing the sorts of things he did. He had begun the decade as a buttoned-down young man of the civil-rights movement, organizing with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. But one sensed, when watching his televised reinvention, that he was struggling to keep up, that the explosive hair and the American-flag shirt were less a matter of natural exuberance than of aspirational coloring. Even the title of his guide to creative protest and freeloading, “Steal This Book” (1971), seemed more plaintive than audacious.
In a new novel, “Revolutionaries” (Knopf), Joshua Furst has done Hoffman the historical-fiction honor of stealing his life and refracting it, slightly, into the tale of Lenny Snyder. Narrated by Lenny’s son, Freedom, the book depicts the younger man’s struggle to remain awed by his father’s capering even as he draws up a lengthy bill of particulars against Lenny’s neglect and egomania.
The novel opens with a mashup of Melville and Salinger: “Call me Fred. I hate Freedom. That’s some crap Lenny dreamed up to keep people like you talking about him.” This narrative voice, garrulous and aggrieved, spares us none of Lenny’s grandiosity and offstage rages, or his panicked “premonition of failure” and secret inability to believe his own shtick. His approach to parenting is an extension of his activism: “I was a party trick Lenny pulled from his sleeve,” Freedom says. As a baby, Freedom had been strapped to a ponderosa pine by his stoned parents as part of an environmental protest. “Is that abuse?” he wonders now. “I don’t know. You tell me. When Lenny told the story, he played it for laughs.” Later, hoping for some like-father-like-son success, Lenny teaches Freedom how to steal from a bodega, only to be disgusted when the kid chickens out. And yet, for all his awareness that he was “raised in a cult” of Lenny’s personality, Freedom pushes himself to understand his father, to attain at least ambivalence and, on occasion, to show a sentimental mercy.
Never seen from the inside out, Lenny remains the sum of his loud and repetitious behaviors, and, as with Hoffman himself, a little of him goes a long way. “Revolutionaries” is best when Lenny is out of sight—locked up or on the run. He gets arrested for selling cocaine to two undercover cops on August 14, 1973, two weeks before Hoffman’s real-life bust at the Hotel Diplomat in New York. Lenny has trouble making bail and otherwise finding much support. The charges against him are too grubby, the country has moved on from his moment, and his former allies feel “a personal desire to see Lenny suffer. Everyone had some grudge or other that they’d been clutching tight.” With Suzy, his acid-tripping mother, in tow, young Freedom wheat-pastes “FREE LENNY SNYDER” posters all over the Lower East Side.
Furst vividly depicts figures from the period, sometimes under their own names (the radical attorney William Kunstler) and sometimes sporting roman-à-clef tags. “Sy Neuman” is clearly Jerry Rubin, one of Hoffman’s old Chicago co-defendants. By the mid-seventies, Neuman is well into his Yippie-to-yuppie transformation, selling vitamin supplements, refusing to donate to Lenny’s defense, and giving Freedom a copy of Ayn Rand’s “Anthem.” Phil Ochs, appearing without an alias, is the book’s most poignant figure—and, in fact, a far richer subject for a novel than Abbie Hoffman. The reader initially cringes as this gentle folksinger, spiralling through delusions of persecution, becomes a fat and drunk maunderer. But Furst’s portrait of him ends up being rounded and tender. The singer provides Freedom not only with money but also with a kind of sodden stability. The actual Ochs committed suicide in 1976, at the age of thirty-five. Thirteen years later, Hoffman killed himself, at fifty-two.
Suzy remains a hapless figure, incapable of much growth or clarity. When Lenny jumps bail and decides to go underground, she’s left stranded. Hiding beneath bleached hair and rhinoplasty, Lenny refuses to take any blame for the poverty and surveillance to which his wife and son are now subjected. Suzy writes him pathetically reassuring letters, and is slow to accept a splash of cold water that she receives from a feminist acquaintance about her supposedly equal partnership with Lenny: “You keep saying we, but all I ever saw was him.” A secret family reunion, a couple of years into his exile, reveals Lenny to be as manipulative as ever, and at last seems to give Freedom a definitive sense of his father’s fakeness. More than a dozen years later, at a magazine-sponsored gathering of sixties radicals, Lenny is the most self-important and humorless of the lot.
Furst’s previous book, and first novel, “The Sabotage Café” (2007), is also a dive into rebellion gone squalidly wrong. A Minneapolis mother named Julia imagines what her runaway teen-age daughter, Cheryl, is experiencing in the grunge dens of Dinkytown, twenty years after Julia herself disappeared into the same bohemian neighborhood. Furst does a good job with the grime and gross-outs of junky ambience, and he creates strung-out dialogue that’s aimlessly believable—even as Julia, a hearer of voices who explains that she has “been cursed with too much empathy,” reaches a pinnacle of narrative unreliability.
The author’s attraction to the agonies of the young has been evident from his first book, a collection of stories, “Short People” (2003), whose child and adolescent protagonists suffer at the hands of peers and parents. The latter can be as immature and troubled as the children they’re raising. One story, “The Good Parents,” concerns a permissive mother-father team whose high-minded plans for rearing a son and a daughter go so awry that “they called Social Services on themselves.” Just as Lenny Snyder’s programmatic anarchy can’t disguise his own vainglorious needs, the father in “The Good Parents” can’t suppress violent inclinations toward his wife and daughter. In the middle of a crisis, after a phone has been flung across the room, the son tries to get inside his father’s head:
Dad, reeling from Mom’s accusation, and fumbling for something to moor him in place, picked up the pieces of the phone. Everything seemed unfamiliar to him, slightly shifted, the perspective skewed, diced and cubed, and he wasn’t sure when or how this had happened.
A page later, the narrator, only five years old, admits the problem with his own method: “I’ve been trying to understand this from Dad’s point of view. I didn’t have one of my own at the time; I was too young and was still moving forward.” The story wants to be both in the moment and retrospective, but it depends on perceptions that the boy is too young to have recorded and retained.
In “Revolutionaries,” Freedom is apologetically aware of being a child for most of the events he describes. He confesses to readers, “These weren’t thoughts a six-year-old could manage, and I couldn’t have articulated them like this, but I felt them flickering just beyond my comprehension.” Even if we believe that he somehow processed them later, it’s still a challenge to accept all the things that the forsaken tyke supposedly said and did at the time. “Songs don’t fix anything,” he tells Phil Ochs, whom he occasionally cares for with the precocity of the Artful Dodger:
All I had to do was roll him into a cab, coax his wallet from his pocket and pay off the driver. “Twenty-four Clinton Street,” I’d tell the guy. “Here’s an extra five bucks in case he throws up.”
“Revolutionaries” also has to fight its way out of the long shadow cast by “The Book of Daniel”(1971), E. L. Doctorow’s novel about the surviving son of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, a couple closely modelled on the Rosenbergs. Barely adolescent at the time of his parents’ execution, in 1954, for conspiracy to commit espionage, Daniel begins coming to terms with his family history as a Columbia graduate student. (Artie Sternlicht, a flamboyant anti-Vietnam War activist in the novel, is clearly based on Abbie Hoffman.) Daniel’s movement between pride and self-loathing is amplified by deliberately jarring shifts between first- and third-person narrative, as well as by an assortment of devices and flourishes meant to give the novel a mythic air. “The Book of Daniel” feels unabashed in its desire to be a great book, a redemption of a dark America. “Revolutionaries” is a much more modest production. It is, to be sure, over-exampled and overdetermined, but it knows how to get out of its own way—how, intermittently, to turn down the political and historical volume to let a reader see instead of just hear. Lenny has “the sweat pouring off him like he’d burst a pipe”; at Freedom and Suzy’s house, “everyone lived on top of everyone else, like layers of paint splashed over the same wall.”
At forty-eight, Furst is part of a broad literary demographic that has discovered the sixties and seventies to be a kind of shuttered gold mine. Breaking into it requires imaginative nerve, a drive to appropriate experience that the authors just missed living. The results have sometimes been exceptional, like the sleek reanimation of Red Brigades terrorism in “The Flamethrowers” (2013), by Rachel Kushner (born in 1968); or the leisurely, sometimes mordant characterization of Wendy Yoshimura, a forgotten figure from the Patty Hearst saga, in “American Woman” (2003), by Susan Choi (born in 1969). Even the Manson family exerts an allure for a still newer generation of novelists: like Furst’s new book, “The Girls” (2016), by Emma Cline (born in 1989), gives off a sense that the narrator (a peripheral figure in a Manson-style cult) carries not only a burden but also a weird privilege by being connected to something legendary. All this may have begun with Doctorow’s Daniel, a dauphin of radical history, as anointed as he is tormented.
The potential for excess in this sort of longing is obvious enough. Rebel lore that is decried can still shimmer, romantically just out of reach. As Kushner’s narrator says at one point in “The Flamethrowers,” “It was wanting something a great deal that made people embarrassing.” The utopian visions of yesterday’s counterculture can be too easily taken for granted, accepted as a given, even when they go sickeningly off course. One has to ask, What exactly were Cheryl’s “ideals,” as Julia calls them? And what exactly were Lenny Snyder’s “accomplishments,” which are conceded to him, no matter how bitterly, by his son?
For all the scales that drop from Freedom’s eyes, a thick rose-colored lens remains in place. However clearly he comes to see Lenny the man, he still propounds his father’s politics as baldly as Lenny did himself. When describing Phil Ochs’s decline, Freedom explains the post-antiwar early seventies: “We all know what happened. The jackboots were called out. Autocratic power, both overt and covert, kicked the life out of everything beautiful in the land. A lesson in raw political reality that Phil had ignored for far, far, far, far too long.” Freedom is still Lenny’s boy, still scorning the world that Lenny scorned, still believing he’d be there but for fortune. ♦