Book Review: 'True Believers' by Kurt Andersen

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.

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