Kurt Andersen gives voice to a chatty narrator recalling a rebellious decade.
True Believers. By Kurt Andersen. 431 pages. Random House, $27; Pounds 17.
I was glad to be immersed in Kurt Andersen's "True Believers" when I happened to watch, on a television news show, an upsetting segment about school systems around the country deciding that elementary-grade students are reading way too much fiction. Why shouldn't they multitask and get practical "hard" information along with their phonetics? Goodbye, Curious George, farewell Amelia Bedelia! Hello solar system and the social organization of the ant farm!
Mr. Andersen's "True Believers" is, among other things, a novel about the powerful influence literature can exert on life. Its main characters are convinced they would have turned out very differently if not for the fiction they read when they were young. For the narrator, Karen Hollander, and for Alex Macallister and Chuck Levy, the two friends she grows up with in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, this formative education is delivered by James Bond.
Several people I respect (my husband among them) thank Ian Fleming for having forged early links between pleasure and reading. For Mr. Andersen's characters, the Fleming novels are a lot more than entertainment. Starting in the summer after sixth grade, the three friends follow Bond's adventures the way fundamentalists study holy texts -- for an explanation of how the world works and a code to live by.
Karen's embrace of Bond precedes and survives the turmoil of the 1960s, when it seemed as if the skills of a superspy (nerve, conviction, a gift for designing and carrying out covert, heroic, subversive acts) might be useful tools for coping with the high drama of daily existence. As the three suburban kids share their generation's intense response to the escalating war in Vietnam, its rage at lying and meretricious politicians and its determination to correct social and economic inequities, the heavy dose of James Bond lingering within them interacts with the ideas and emotions crackling through the atmosphere of the country at large, leading Karen and her pals to plan an act that is not just insanely risky but simply insane.
As the novel begins, Karen is writing a memoir -- a book in which she's finally going to confess, tell the whole truth and implicate her co-conspirators. The present action of "True Believers" deals largely with the new information her research into the past uncovers and its occasionally drastic consequences for her friends and former friends.
If you sat next to Karen on an airplane, you'd most likely know her whole history before the flight was cleared for takeoff. On the novel's first page we get her prospective blurb. A "candid and inspirational memoir by one of the most accomplished leaders and thinkers of our times" is what Karen's publishers are expecting.
Then comes the narrative tease. "Let me cut to the chase: I once set out to commit a spectacular murder, and people died."
And, soon after, the bio: "I was a reliable U.S. Supreme Court clerk and then a reliable Legal Aid lawyer, representing with all the verve and cunning I could muster some of the most pathetically, tragically unreliable people on earth. I have been a reliable partner in America's 19th largest law firm, a reliable author of four books, a reliable law professor, a reliable U.S. Justice Department official, a reliable law school dean." Meanwhile Karen has also become "the coolest grandma on the planet." Her 17-year- old granddaughter, inspired by passions that appear to have skipped a generation, takes Karen along as a parentally mandated chaperone when she travels to Miami to protest at a G-20 summit.
It turns out to be very difficult to write fiction (or, for that matter, make films) about the 1960s. I don't say this only because I lived through them and have tried. Nonfiction, like Jenny Diski's memoir "The Sixties," more often gets it right. Maybe that's because the fictive narratives about the era must navigate the narrow passage between the overly goofy and the excessively earnest.
Karen herself is sort of goofy, and her narrative takes turns that seem as improbable as the switchbacks in a magic realist fairy tale. Ultimately, though, you want to give Mr. Andersen credit for choosing to write about an era when many young people cared deeply about what happened to human beings in both a faraway country where we were fighting a war and also in our own inner cities -- a moment before those concerns were replaced by a cultural obsession with shopping, stylish new restaurants and celebrity gossip.
Forty years in the past, that time is already historic. By the end of his novel, Mr. Andersen's radicals have metamorphosed into rich art collectors and Supreme Court nominees. But Karen hasn't forgotten the significance of what she witnessed. She wants to tell people what her youth was about: the summer riots of the mid-'60s; the marches on Washington against the war in Vietnam. And, of course, the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
The opening lines of L. P. Hartley's beautiful novel, "The Go- Between" -- "the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" -- could serve as this novel's epigraph.