Thursday, July 7, 2011

'Altamont Augie' and the War for a Generation’s Soul

“If you can remember the sixties,” quipped Timothy Leary, “you weren’t there.” Well, for those who can’t remember, or weren’t ever there, Richard Barager’s new novel Altamont Augie thrusts the reader into the torrent of that tumultuous era more successfully, and from a more unique perspective, than any I’ve read.

The book’s quirky title holds twofold significance. For anyone who does remember the sixties, “Altamont” is somber shorthand for the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, a rock concert in late 1969 attended by hundreds of thousands and featuring powerhouse bands of the day like the Jefferson Airplane and the Rolling Stones, who headlined the show. The concert is most notorious for its degeneration into increasing crowd violence, culminating in the stabbing death of a drug-fueled, gun-wielding concertgoer by a member of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, whom the Stones had hired for security – all captured on film for the documentary Gimme Shelter. Long forgotten is another death at that concert – a man was found drowned in an irrigation canal. The victim’s name remains unknown, and the mystery of his identity lies at the heart of this novel.

“Augie” is a nod to the Saul Bellow classic of American literature, The Adventures of Augie March, featuring a character who, in the words of critic Norman Podhoretz, “stands for the American dream of the inviolable individual who has the courage to resist his culture.” Author Barager’s Augie is David Noble, a young man so repulsed by his generation’s descent into a violent, irrational anti-Americanism that he impulsively enlists in the Marines to do his patriotic part to ensure American victory in the Vietnam War. Little does he realize what a trial-by-fire boot camp will be, and that he will find himself in a vision of hell to rival the nightmarish work of Hieronymus Bosch, at the 1968 battle of Khe Sanh.

After his stint in Vietnam, David returns to his girlfriend Jackie, who runs with the radical anti-war crowd, the Marxist-inspired members of the Students for a Democratic Society. The SDS strove to tear down America's democratic institutions and support her defeat on the battlefields of Vietnam. David Noble now finds himself fighting a war at home as well:

SDS had to be confronted – even if it meant pissing Jackie off. Vietnam was being lost not on the battlefield, where the NVA had yet to win a major engagement, but at home, on college campuses. Nixon may have won the election, but the New Left was winning the fight for public opinion, the drumbeat for peace at the expense of victory growing louder by the day. What good was peace born from a self-inflicted loss harming national honor? These things matter

Indeed they do. Just as they still matter now, forty years later, when the progressive Left, after waging a similar anti-war crusade against former President George W. Bush and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, has succeeded in putting a fellow Alinskyite in the White House.

But back to the book. Liberated but conflicted girlfriend Jackie is sharing herself with David’s nemesis Kyle, a subversive SDS ideologue whose revolutionary fervor gives her the bravado to challenge her parents’ contemptible middle-class existence during dinner one night:

“Kyle and I renounced our white skin privilege,” she blurted out during blueberry pie à la mode.
Her father’s hand froze in midair, his fork never making his mouth. “You renounced what? What kind of privilege?”
“White…skin…privilege. What you and I benefit from, socio-economic advantage because of the color of our skin.”
Her mother bowed her head and made the sign of the cross. Her father put his fork down and glared. “The only socio-economic advantage I ever enjoyed was my willingness to work the night shift at Great Northern Railroad to put myself through college. And the only socio-economic advantage you enjoy is my willingness to work sixty hours a week at a law firm to put you through college. Trust me, tuition doesn’t come with a white-skin discount.”

Undaunted by this rebuttal, Jackie follows radical Kyle cross-country to the San Francisco Bay Area, where they become involved with the violent Weathermen and Black Panthers. David Noble pursues them both, and the tension in this passionate love triangle, as well as the ideological struggle between David and Kyle, climax in tragedy and redemption at the Altamont concert itself – along with a stunning final revelation.
Dr. Barager is a kidney specialist who bills himself as “the literary doctor,” and not without justification. Although a first-time novelist, he has an accomplished style and a strong sense of how to propel a story and to create well-rounded, sympathetic characters. Barager has breathed new life and an intellectual depth into a period too often stereotyped and romanticized in fiction. In his blog about the book’s politics, the author claims to have striven for neutrality and balance; refreshingly, he neither ridicules conservative values and traditions, nor glorifies the counterculture.

To immerse the reader even more deeply in its ‘60s zeitgeist, the book actually includes a song playlist to help set the mood while reading, featuring iconic hits from the late sixties like “Eight Miles High,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” and one of the most unlikely chart-toppers ever, “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” (The songs can all be accessed on Barager’s website.) A short bibliography is appended as well, including such enlightening volumes about the era as Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties, by Peter Collier and David Horowitz.

“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner once wrote. “It's not even past.” The 1960s have impacted American history probably more than any other decade of the twentieth century. The ugliness of Altamont drew a dark curtain on the utopian Age of Aquarius, but the culture clash which that era spawned still rages today, a battle for the past and future of this nation’s soul. An historical novel this may be, but Altamont Augie simultaneously manages to read like a literary classic while crackling with contemporary resonance.

(This article originally appeared at Front Page Mag here, 7/7/11)