Early this year, Southern California's alternative radio station KPFK narrowly escaped criminal prosecution and license revocation. The station had broadcast a drama that used language found on the Federal Communication Commission's dreaded list of "7 dirty words."
No such restraints inhibit Lionel Rolfe's first novel, "Last Train North."
The book begins in 1969. Rolfe's partly autobiographical alter ego, Ari Mendelsohn, a frequently fired radical journalist, starts work on a small Southern California newspaper, the Oldhouse Tribune, edited by the erratic Oldhouse Jr.
Five of the novel's more colorful characters--Mendelsohn, Oldhouse Jr., "sex beast" political activist Laura, "AstroGod" guru Allan Pootmeister, and Pootmeister's harem-queen Luna--variously devote themselves to a year of fornication, drugs, occasional progressive causes and Shirley MacLaine-style cosmic revelations. The decade and the book end on the night "the clock strikes 1970."
Rolfe's left-of-center politics are important and not often enough heard. All the more unfortunate that they are expressed in so stylistically and intellectually careless a work.
The author's compulsive emphasis on macho -fantasy sex should remain free of any censor. Unlike James Joyce's ecstatic, vernacular, explicit, not-to-be-censored "pornography," however, Rolfe's ceaseless sex is numbing. By quick count, fully half the slim novel's 88 pages contain genital, mammary and copulatory references. It is also offensive at this late date for a son of the emancipated '60s to characterize almost all his story's women primarily by the enormity of their breasts and appetites for intercourse.
Nor is any character, whatever the gender, anything other than a pop-up silhouette for verbal target practice, or a cut-out exotic to be inserted in the episodic shorthand that substitutes for narrative.
The writing in "Last Train Home" is antiquated, cliched, clumsy, forgetful and contradictory. Sentences like the following occur on every page. "This was kind of like that kind of thing." "It came to naught." "It was ever thus." "How chummy, I asided." "One summer evening, heading into spring . . ." (even in Southern California, spring usually precedes summer).
The book's worst offense is its cheapening of what Rolfe himself says were the '60s towering aspirations, sacrifices and successes.
Rolfe is a surviving voice of California's counter-culture '60s confronting America's anti-reality '80s. Rolfe speaks with rancid nostalgia, graffiti-masculinity and burned-out pessimism. He reduces the decade he professes to revere to a series of petty, sex-obsessed, stoned, glibly sloganeering, exhibitionistic, amateurish anecdotes.
Some observers would point out that the legacy of the '60s is powerful enough 20 years later to be keeping America out of new Vietnams.
The '60s are still with us. As long as there are victories to be celebrated and struggles to be waged, there are no last trains.