Obituaries

Neil Gordon, 58, academic, writer of fugitive thriller

NEW YORK — Neil Gordon, whose cerebral novels about radical politics, most famously “The Company You Keep,” challenged readers with biblical parables and ethical dilemmas, died on May 19 in Manhattan. He was 58.

The cause was multiple myeloma, said his wife, Esin Ili Goknar.

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Mr. Gordon had also been the dean of Eugene Lang College at the New School in New York, dean of the American University of Paris, and the founding literary editor of Boston Review.

He was best known outside academia as a novelist, especially after “The Company You Keep,” his third novel, a fugitive thriller published in 2003, was adapted into a 2012 feature film directed by and starring Robert Redford. The cast also included Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, and Susan Sarandon.

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In The New York Times Book Review, novelist James McManus described Mr. Gordon’s plot as “Woodstock Nation meets Islamic fundamentalism.” In the book, he skewered the excesses of both the political left and the right as a futuristic vision unfolded through a series of e-mail messages.

“What makes this novel compelling is not only the ideological spectrum it covers but its emotional chiaroscuro,” McManus wrote.

“It manages to juggle stoned-sounding odes to hydroponic weed with high-stakes legal and political gambits; practical advice about life on the lam (‘When you are afraid, take the stairs. At least your beating heart can process the adrenaline in your blood’) with a gorgeous evocation of Cadman Plaza at 3:30 a.m. (‘the green of the trees around the park lost in the black of night, but still casting a carpet of shadow in the moonlight’),” McManus observed, referring to a park in Brooklyn.

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The film version was not as breathlessly embraced. Stephen Holden described it in The Times as “earnest” and “well-intentioned” but called it marred by a “clunky” screenplay by Lem Dobbs that had a predictably “bogus” Hollywood finale.

Mr. Gordon’s last book, “You’re a Big Girl Now” (2014), is a sequel that surveyed the American left from the time of the Spanish Civil War to the Occupy Wall Street protests in recent years.

The protagonist, Isabel Montgomery, the daughter of the fugitive and violent anti-Vietnam War protester who was exposed in “The Company You Keep,” is a journalist who reveals the government’s illegal surveillance of US citizens in a front-page article for The Times.

Each of Gordon’s books explores radical politics, from the turbulent formation of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust (he became an advocate for Palestinian rights) to global weapons trafficking and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His brooding debut novel, “The Sacrifice of Isaac” (1995), was an international murder whodunit whose solution hinged on how to interpret God’s test of Abraham’s faith.

In “The Gun Runner’s Daughter” (1998), an Israeli-American woman is a modern incarnation of Queen Esther, the secretly Jewish wife of the Persian king, who saved her people from annihilation.

What the four novels shared, Joshua Cohen wrote in Boston Review after Mr. Gordon’s death, were “strong narratives, deeply researched history, and serious political ambition.”

“Whatever the topic, I always heard Neil wrestling with the same problem: about purity of conviction and worldly engagement,” continued Cohen, who is co-editor of the magazine. “Sometimes he wrote admiringly of the purity, sometimes he worried about its degeneration into fanaticism, and always he was uneasy about the distance it created from the individual lives that ultimately matter.”

Neil Simon Gordon was born in 1958, in Johannesburg to anti-apartheid activists who emigrated from South Africa to Britain in 1961 and then to New York. His father, Harley, was a pediatrician. His mother, the former Sheila Feldman, was a writer.

After graduating from St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of Michigan in 1980, a master’s from the University of Paris, and a doctorate from Yale, where his dissertation was titled “Stranger Than Fiction: The Occult Short Stories of Hawthorne and Balzac.”

He envisioned himself as a tenure-track scholar, aware that writing fiction, he said, “was not tenurable work for a professor of literature.”

“I wrote and wrote,” he recalled in “Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives” (2009), “but without illusion that it was more than a child’s work.”

Encouraged by his wife-to-be, though, he switched tracks. He was hired as an editorial assistant at The New York Review of Books, and began teaching literature part time at the New School and writing professionally.

In addition to his wife, a photography editor at The New York Times Magazine, he leaves their daughter, Leila Gordon; their son, Jacob; a brother, David; and a sister, Philippa.

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