Where have all the flowers gone? They weren’t flowers, Kurt Andersen tells us; or if they were, or held themselves to be, well, as the saying goes, lilies rotted stink worse than weeds. Getting along towards two generations past the youth fervors of the ’60s and ’70s, Anderson attempts a sardonic perspective. Rather late for the sardonic if not the perspective: Satire, after all, is what closes Saturday night, and we are many Saturdays beyond.
“True Believers” — the title raises one eyebrow at the true and the other at the belief — is Anderson’s screed against the smug delusions of the children of privilege in those times. Children who are in their 60s now and, like himself, doing well in their contemporary varieties of delusional smug.
Nothing wrong with a screed when it is done with the frequent acuteness of this prominent and witty commentator. The fatal defect is not the ideas, however debatable some of them may be, but that Anderson has squeezed them into the procrustean form of a novel. His youthful characters are sandwich men (and one woman) marching the author’s arguments around on their backs.
It is the woman who tells the story of herself and her friends. Today Karen Hollander is stuffed with achievement. Overstuffed, in fact: Anderson spares nothing in dressing up his symbols. A former fabulously rich lawyer, on the White House short list for the Supreme Court, she is dean of a big California law school and the epitome of establishment connectedness. One of her two youthful buddies, Alex Macallister, equally gilded though turned nasty, is a hugely successful movie and television producer and owner of an art collection worth many tens of millions. The other buddy, Chuck Levy, is dead.
Karen recalls the trio, hooked at 12 on James Bond, playing extravagant fictional games mimicking his exploits. Their fictional reality — the gist of Andersen’s indictment of America, now as well as then, is that we are governed by fictions — continues to propel them as they go on to college and become vocal participants in the protests and demonstrations of their youth.
They are joined by a fourth young person, Buzzy Freeman, later to become a right-wing TV commentator (yet another fabulous success). Impatient with the lack of results, they engage in a plot to assassinate President Johnson for his seemingly endless expansion of the Vietnam War. Their plan is to fly a model plane filled with explosives into the presidential helicopter as it lands in Central Park. Johnson’s announcement that he will withdraw from the impending presidential race leads Karen, Alex, and Buzzy to abandon the plot; Chuck stubbornly tries to keep on, with fatal consequences.
The plot is absurd of course; this is Andersen’s point that Americans are guided by the narratives they embrace. It is a demonstration point, though, not a novelistic one. Andersen fails to muster the detail that even a far-fetched story needs. And so the long section relating the plot and its unwinding lacks any real interest; the same is true for the endless James Bond games at the start. For page after page we spin air.
Never very interesting in themselves, the three young people whom Karen recalls are further leached of reality by the burdens of meaning that the writer imposes on them. When it turns out that each has a connection with one or another intelligence agency, it serves Andersen’s indictment of ’70s activism as fakery. It makes them even less credible as characters.
Coming up into the present, the writer makes the point that many of the things young people battled for have become reality: an end to Vietnam, sexual liberation, racial rights, and much else. He makes it ironically, as if their battles had been irrelevant. Many of the slogans in today’s much milder demonstrations borrow from the older ones, he complains. No originality; we have aging rockers in their 70s still drawing crowds. He does not so much ignore today’s causes such as environmentalism as stress their sillier aspects.
Somewhere between lament and mockery, Andersen wields his satire of the old activists. Not serious, nor seriously engaged, and quickly bought off by the establishment or infiltrated by it. Not quite Orwell’s “1984’’ verse: “Under the spreading chestnut tree/ I sold you and you sold me.” More of a consumerist “I rented you and you rented me.”
Anderson is particularly good on the allure of California, “the sweet, easy availability of vegetation and sea, of bright sun and blue sky — the unembarrassed sluttiness of nature in Los Angeles.” Karen notes on the other hand the peculiar solitude of the place. “I am either entirely alone — in my car, in my house — or among people I know well.’’ In New York on the subway “I’m a member of a tightly packed group of strangers, alone but not alone . . . people of every age and race and circumstance at whom I can stare, at length and close up, examining each ones face and clothing, noting the book she’s reading, the music to which the head right next to mine is bobbing.”
“True Believers” is a painstaking train ride through the tumult of the times; one that makes all the stops. Andersen’s wit can help with the sights along the way, but the journey itself is one we've already taken, plain, and have nothing to gain from the novelistic frillwork.