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The whether underground

The Company You Keep: A Novel, Neil Gordon, Viking: 406 pp., $25.95

July 13, 2003|Robert Hellenga | Robert Hellenga is the author of several novels, including "Blues Lessons," "The Sixteen Pleasures" and "The Fall of a Sparrow."

Neil Gordon's third novel, "The Company You Keep," consists of 42 e-mails sent by various members of "The Committee," a mysterious group of "balding ex-hippies" to 17-year-old Isabel, or Izzy, who is at school in England, where she can be protected (and monitored) by the bodyguards of her powerful grandfather, a former senator and currently the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James's. The first e-mail is dated 1 June 2006; the last, 26 June 2006.

What the committee wants, as Isabel's father explains in the first e-mail, is for Izzy to elude her grandfather's bodyguards and go to a maximum-security prison in Michigan to testify at a parole hearing. The members of the committee believe the best way to persuade her to do so is to tell her their collective story, which they do, each one copying his or her messages to all the other committee members.The story that follows evokes all the familiar landmarks arising from the '60s: the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, the Greenwich Village town house bombing, Kent State, the Days of Rage. But the focus is on events in 1996, 10 years before the novel's present: The arrest of Sharon Solarz, one of three fugitives from the (fictional) Bank of Michigan robbery in which a bank guard was killed, leads to the identification of a second fugitive, Isabel's father, who has created a life for himself as Jim Grant, a successful lawyer and loving father. Forced underground again, Jim Grant, now Jason Sinai, leaves 7-year-old Isabel alone in a New York hotel room and sets out to find Mimi, the third of the three fugitives.

The principal narrators are Jason Sinai and Benjamin Schulberg, a newspaper reporter who connects him to Solarz. We also hear from Molly (Jason's girlfriend), Mimi, Rebeccah (daughter of an FBI agent and soon to be an agent herself) and Jed (former radical and head of the honors program at the University of Michigan). The collective story they send to Isabel gives us plenty to worry about, to care about and to think about.

"The Company You Keep" works as a thriller, but the adventures -- like those in Gordon's previous novels, "Sacrifice of Isaac" and "The Gunrunner's Daughter" -- are grounded firmly in larger political and moral issues, in this case the passionate conviction that the radical opposition in the '60s to the Vietnam War represented the high point of American idealism, the best dream America ever had, a dream embodied in the 1962 Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society ("antiwar, antiracism, and anti-imperialism"), a dream abandoned.

This conviction is challenged from every possible angle in the novel -- from the right (some of the characters are Republicans) and more seriously from the left. The radicals went over the top, handed the government an excuse to crack down, gave the movement a bad name and destroyed the New Left. Mimi quotes Noam Chomsky contending that the radical movement brought about permanent changes for the better, but she says others feel the movement was no more than a blip on the screen, that it failed completely, and the poor are poorer, the rich whiter, the country in worse shape than ever. Were the radicals just rich kids playing with bombs? Did the revolution fail? Do personal relationships inevitably trump politics? Gordon is too sophisticated to offer definitive answers. Our answers will emerge from our responses to the characters' various predicaments. In one of the most telling passages of the novel, Mimi contemplates the massive manhunt mobilized to track Sinai: "Here's the rule, Isabel," she explains in a seven-page e-mail: "With criminals, people root for them secretly, secretly hope they will evade the police, even while they publicly moralize against them. With us, they root for us publicly, and secretly, deeply, profoundly, they hope we will fail." She's not talking about flag-waving right-wingers; she means her colleagues on the left, "ex-Movement" people who have settled into middle-class lives -- and readers of this novel.

Gordon forces us to confront a troublesome question over and over: Does the apparent failure of the '60s revolution or movement justify the complacent materialism of the first decade of the new century? Is there nothing more to be done? Is this it? Gordon never lets us off the hook.

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