May 2004

Damien Weaver

fiction

The Company You Keep by Neil Gordon

Poor Isabel. In the year 2006 she's seventeen years old, at the Exminster School in England, when she receives an unusual e-mail from her father back in the States. He's seeking vindication for having abandoned her a decade ago and requesting her presence in Detroit, Michigan for reasons kept hidden. His message is followed by another, and another, some from people Isabel's never met, all chiming in to testify on her father's behalf and recounting piecemeal a few crucial weeks of summer 1996. By the time they're done Isabel has 400 pages of this exhortatory e-mail to wade through, the same 400 pages that make up Neil Gordon's "The Company You Keep."

The individuals writing to Isabel are members of an organization calling itself "The Committee" and are tied through varying degrees of separation to former Weather Underground fugitives, caught and uncaught. Early on a jaded journalist, the most charismatic of the correspondents, delivers Isabel a decent dossier on the Weathermen, the Weather Underground, and related sects and splinter groups. While the history lesson is well done -- fair, spare and informative -- it's the beginning of The Company You Keep's tension between fact and fiction, an uncertainty some may find frustrating. The plot is founded on real events, and real revolutionaries share newspaper headlines with the story's fabricated fugitives. Are some in The Commitee living people, or only mildly fictionalized? Who? Why? These questions carry straight through the acknowledgments, where the author thanks mysterious unnamed sources as well as a real-world shamus who appears in the novel as himself, providing his professional services to one of the novel's characters in a peccant private-eye product placement.

Gordon's prose through the first third of the book is commendable. His restrained lyricism and easy balance of internal monologue with descriptive narration are at their best reminiscent of Richard Ford's, an impression enhanced by Company's subjects, financially secure, mordantly self-recriminatory white New Englanders. That said, while Ford's Frank Bascombe may be on the same L.L. Bean mailing list as The Committee, he has no kindred spirits here politically. The Committee's main writers and the book's main characters are liberals, the kind of agonized old-guard omphaloskeptics for whom violence is distinguished not by its consequences but by the enviable moral surety predicating it. There's a good deal of generational humor, gentle inward jibes about boomer self-involvement that eventually give the introspection a queasy hall-of-mirrors quality... how often can one self-deprecatingly disclaim one's narcissism without compounding it, or is that the point?

The novel's major conceit, that the text is in fact a series of instructive e-mails to a teenager from a clique of activists, is strained by Gordon's strengths as a writer. Most Committee members' cadence and style are suspiciously consistent, sharing an impressive ability to express complex ideas and histories in polished paragraphs. On the same note, there's nary a :) in sight, nor any of the font styling, hyperlinks, acronyms or shorthand that infest most actual e-mail. All of this constitutes a vital blow to realism, and let us B gr8ful 4 it. With a plot involving this many characters, many inhabiting and recalling various false identities, only a maniac wouldn't forgive the sacrifice of realist grit in the name of reader enjoyment, though the e-mail format does provide good cover for the occasional typo -- it's explained to Isabel that her grandfather's tastes "...inhabited your fathers'[sic] pallet[sic], waiting to be found." OMG WTF *LOLs @ homophone*

In this gracious mood, we may likewise overlook the middle-aged correspondents' uniformly perfect recall of minutia ten years in the past: the rueful way someone smiled, the shapes of the clouds, the song on the radio, the groceries bought. What's hard to forgive is the pace.

The gears grind for a long while before things get going, with only heavy portent and opaque allusion to bide the reader through. "Little did I suspect how soon this peace and happiness would be irrevocably shattered." How soon? Very soon? A hundred pages in, things pick up. Isabel's dad goes on the lam, hunted by the feds, and he daydreams wistfully in Greyhound buses and collegetown diners instead of his lakeside summer home. Generous time is given to gesture and reflection. In 1996, when the tale Isabel's being told took place, seeds sown in the Vietnam era were blooming into contemporary crisis, leading our narrators to relive events then twenty or thirty years previous. Thus, we are treated to reminiscences about reminiscences: They keenly remember now how keenly they were then remembering.

Stuff happens, grudgingly. Crimes are committed, though not a hundredth as often as they're recalled and anticipated. Comfort is imperiled. Joints are smoked. Epiphanies occur. We briefly cross paths with a California dope kingpin, but he's a benevolent Ben & Jerry capitalist who provides his cartel's employees with fair wages, family health insurance and retirement accounts. This isn't meant to be humorous; too little is.

The book's events, such as they are, leave the mouth dusty. The real juice here is in a father's anguish at losing his daughter. Appropriately, it's the linchpin of Company's action, and something primal and genuinely pained blazes beneath Daddy's e-mails when the subject is at hand. It's a relief to encounter the spines of this grief, hard and sharp, jutting from the sentimental pudding about compromised idealism and male-pattern baldness, but it's too rare. Instead we get somnolent recapitulations of the sixties as experienced by The Committee, uncountable reiterations of the very special emotions of that very special time. The book's earlier epochal eulogies are bracketed by winking acknowledgments of how tiresome it must be for Isabel to listen to old warhorses rehash their glory days, but all too soon the ritualized apologizing is discarded and we're neck deep in nostalgia while the plot spins its wheels.

The logistics of life underground, the disguises, codes, and paranoid protocols, are reasonably interesting. Intelligent people attempt to evade or apprehend other intelligent people in the service of political causes about which they're conflicted. With different priorities, The Company You Keep might've been a serviceable Americanized Le Carre thriller, but it's too swamped in rose-tinted recollection. As we head towards the climax the story slows instead of accelerating, bogging down deeper. The writing gets sloppy and repetitive, and what's intended as a revelatory twist late in the book is so unlikely it falls flat.

Boring is an abused adjective, a callow criticism for lazy thinkers. But lord, this book is boring. The following excerpt covers six particularly punishing pages through the magic of mean-spirited elision. Our setting is a bar in Dexter, Michigan:

"Dexter, Michigan. A booth at the back of the Sportsman bar... Life, I was thinking, sitting in the furthermost booth in the dark bar, drinking more beer... I, Jason Sinai, in a bar... I, Jason Sinai, alone in a bar... Isabel, should I try to describe that day in the Sportsman's bar, Dexter, Michigan? ...now, in a bar in Dexter, Michigan... There in that bar in Dexter, Michigan... drinking beer... ...Sitting there, drinking... I, Jason Sinai, your father. Forty-six years old. In a bar in Dexter... Sitting at the bar in Dexter, drinking too much... I saw them suddenly... I saw them then: big-hearted, articulate, brave, beautiful. Billy Ayers, Kathy Boudin, Ellen Radcliff, Bernadine Dohrn. Suddenly I could vividly see each and every one of them, their names, their aliases, the actions they were in. Catherine Wilksonson, David Miller, Nancy Ruth, Paul Millstone, Marsha Cole, Richard Rudd, Lou Cohen. Michael McGinn, Sharon Gresh, Judith Dreed, Ann Delaney. Their names flooded into my consciousness... I had been drinking too much... sitting in this bar in Dexter..."
Poor Isabel.

The Company you Keep by Neil Gordon
Viking
ISBN 0670032182
406 Pages