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Midterm Report, the Class of '65: CHRONICLE OF AN AMERICAN GENERATION by David Wallechinsky (Viking: $19.95; 418 pp.)

September 28, 1986|Charles Trueheart | Trueheart was formerly West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly. and

To judge from the soliloquies of the 28 men and women in this casual work of oral history--the views of the high school class of 1965 at "the halfway point in its journey through life"--the Vietnam War remains the formative experience of their lives.

Many of them went over there to fight, or waited at home for their husbands to return from the war. A few protested on the domestic front. But whatever their perceptions of duty and conscience may have been 20 years ago, now that David Wallechinsky has turned up with his tape recorder and begun to ask questions, virtually every one of them says the war was a monumentally bad idea, and thought so even then.

Does this make Wallechinsky's sample, or his methods, suspect? It would be tempting to think so. But everything else in these accounts suggests a generation of people no longer inclined to believe in very much but themselves, and even that faith is shaky. It's as if the war broke a big promise made to them, and no one will ever be certain of anything again except uncertainty itself. As one fellow in these pages puts it: "Our generation has looked into the bowl of soup and seen it's pretty thin."

The generation that holds such continued fascination for Wallechinsky is, of course, his own. These are the people who were born in and around 1947, graduated from high school in 1965 and aren't quite 40 today. Ten years ago, Wallechinsky and his friend Michael Medved interviewed their high school classmates for a book called "What Really Happened to the Class of '65?" "Midterm Report" is a sequel, broadened to include people from beyond Los Angeles. The last line of the book warns us that it is not the last time the bard of '65 will strike.

Methodology is not a great concern here. Wallechinsky specializes in books ("The People's Almanac," "The Book of Lists," "Significa") that have the gloss of objectivity and comprehensiveness but little of either within. It's certainly easier that way. Although "only a small percentage of the people I spoke with tell their stories in this book," we must presume an effort to include rich kids and poor, blacks and whites, hawks and doves, conventional people and mavericks, because they're all in here. So are two people from the class of '65 whom you may have heard of: Claudine Schneider, a Republican member of Congress from Rhode Island, and Jack Carter, son of the former President. So is one person presumed to be dead, Manuel Lauterio, whose helicopter went down in Vietnam on Jan. 8, 1973; his wife and family tell his story.

In a preface that readers easily deterred by mush would do well to skip, Wallechinsky declares that "I am a subjective person." We learn from the introductions to most of the 28 stories that he is a vegetarian ("It is my habit when visiting a new city immediately to seek out the local health-food store . . . "), so no one can say he's hidden his sensibilities. What rescues the book is that he renders them in italics and then shuts up.

The voices that ensue are truly poignant. It is clear that these people have been trying to put things back together ever since Vietnam: their lives, their sense of the future, their confidence in their country, their marriages, their broken bodies. Off and on, for succor and hope, they have turned to God, drugs, the open road, new sexual partners, kite-making, child-rearing, noble causes, fighting the system, teaching school, natural food.

These people take their lives seriously; they are equipped with measures of irony and candor and wisdom that any generation would envy; they have a courage--in combat, in protest, in self-fulfillment, and in an almost unbelievable succession of personal tragedy and loss--that cannot fail to make an impression. Yet even when they say they've found satisfaction, and many do, in their voices doubt and sadness are unmistakable. And after all that has come before, how could it be otherwise?

It is hard to say if this has occurred to Wallechinsky, and if so, whether he'd agree. Being the good '60s relativist and the open-minded kinda guy he is, he sees only "one thing that all the people in this book have in common: I liked them." After he has presented their stories, he draws no conclusions--and that's probably just as well, given the insufferably silly "report card" he presents to his class at the end, grading them on subjects like Peace and Security (B), Technology (A), Culture (C).

This book probably will find most of its readers among Wallechinsky's age group. But what of their parents? The men and women who bore children in the optimistic days after the end of World War II, raised them in the heady years of Eisenhower's peace and prosperity during the 1950s and set them loose in the world with every advantage, could never have imagined what would befall their offspring. If they read this book, I think they would weep. And with the possible exception of David Wallechinsky, I think the class of '65 itself is weeping, silently, too.

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