True Believers is a wild ride through the tensest days of the late 60s when drugs were good for you, anarchy was an honorable pursuit, ivy league educations were–and were not–hotbeds of revolution. Into this hurricane three James Bond freaks from the midwest pitch themselves like skydivers with predictable precipitous descents. Kurt Andersen gets so many things right about that time. A lot of what happens to his protagonist Karen Hollander and her best friends Chuck and Alex reflects real history, real political turmoil, real life-or-death stakes and the real choices available to privileged white kids with troubled consciences and vivid imaginations.
After she turns down an appointment to the Supreme Court that would have capped a distinguished career in law, Karen Hollander resumes her life as a tenured academic in California–and decides to write her memoir. This has the immediate effect of driving old acquaintances into an outraged frenzy of denial and to the brink of suicide. People are on the brink throughout this book and some of them lose their footing. Something happened in early 1968 that Karen has kept hidden for more than forty years. It’s a secret with potential dire consequences and it is the reason Karen Hollander could never risk the background investigation that would precede an appointment to the Supreme Court. Her life, career and reputation are not the only ones endangered by her eleventh-hour candor.
She contacts a few cohorts from back in the day who go ballistic. She engages her very cool 17-year-old granddaughter as a beta reader and her off-and-on government spook lover as a clandestine researcher. And she writes it all down, from grade seven or eight on. The hook grabs you and some of the characters–Waverly the granddaughter for one–are compelling. Lots and lots of flavor from an era that is deliberately misinterpreted by almost everyone who writes about it these days. Andersen presents it much as it was and, for that and the plot, I kept reading. Really a pretty good book. But long. I think way too long. The inside of Karen Hollander’s head is relatively interesting but not irresistible. The revelations feel a bit dragged out and I kept reading through to the end to be sure I wouldn’t miss a very last-minute 180-degree twist. But It took forever for Karen to figure out what really happened and, to me, the telling was stretched beyond its natural resiliency.
I liked True Believers, partly because I detest the smug literati who deride the 1960s as some kind of delusional aberration full of fuzzy thinking and self-absorbed adolescents. Maybe you had to have been there. Kurt Andersen may well have been there–his book reads as if he was. But it goes on like a stoned conversation, fascinating in parts and too many words in others. Could have used a more rigorous edit, or a plot thicker than one woman’s hunger to resolve the guilt from her past sins. James Bond dispatched his enemies and his adventures more succinctly. A little of that brevity might have served the tale of Hollander’s treasons well.
True Believers: A Novel Kurt Andersen | Random House 2012