March 2011

Michael Schaub

nonfiction

Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth

I was a teenage liberationist. This was a long time ago, when I was a student in the Catholic schools of San Antonio, Texas. The Catholicism of San Antonio was different then, or at least I like to think it was -- there was, in those days, at least a grudging respect paid by priests and churches to liberation theology, the Catholic movement that advocated for the poor and disenfranchised, that worshiped Jesus the Liberator, the savior of the ones left behind.

I doubt it's the same now. For one thing, “the ones left behind” has taken on a different meaning; it's impossible to hear that phrase without thinking of the right-wing Protestant books that were popular a few years ago, written by Christians convinced that Jesus, were he alive today, would spend his time encouraging the subjugation of women, hatred of gay people, and violence toward abortion providers. Catholicism in the United States has come under the control of intolerant conservatives who turn a blind eye to sexual abuse by priests and who don't seem to care at all about poverty. No wonder Newt Gingrich just converted to the church I grew up in. No wonder, though I still consider myself a Catholic (although a pissed-off, disenchanted, agnostic one), I haven't gone to Mass in over a decade.

It wasn't always this way, unless it was. I don't remember. But liberation theology -- still criticized by the right as being crypto-Marxist -- has a deeply seductive message for anyone who cares, or wants to care, about their fellow human beings. It was this message that brought Deb Olin Unferth, at age 18, to Central America, with her Christian liberationist boyfriend. They were there to join the revolution -- remember that? The one Colonel North sold arms to Iran to put down; the one Archbishop Romero gave his life for.

Deb and her boyfriend, George, were young and idealistic. They wanted to join the revolution. But the revolution didn't want them.

Unferth, author of the novel Vacation, recounts her 1987 trip to El Salvador and Nicaragua in her new memoir, the hilarious, sad, and beautiful Revolution. The book follows her and George as they leave college and make their way to Central America, hoping to find revolution jobs -- honest, hard work for a cause they've both come to believe in. They do manage to find two jobs, from which they're both quickly fired. They spend their days battling a succession of illnesses, trying desperately to earn money to eat, hanging out with other like-minded foreigners, as well as Central Americans deeply skeptical of their intentions and abilities. They like to think of themselves as revolutionaries; the native people whose lives have actually been turned upside-down by the fighting think of them as “sandalistas” -- well-intentioned but ultimately useless American liberals who might just be there to piss off their parents, and, with any luck, President Reagan and Secretary Weinberger.

The young Deb and George are undoubtedly naïve -- and the tone of the memoir indicates that Unferth is more than a little embarrassed by her youthful hyper-idealism -- but it's clear they came by their convictions honestly. Unferth was an “atheist Jew” as a college freshman, but converted to Christianity after meeting George, with whom she quickly fell in love. (A common refrain in the book is “George was in charge,” and the teenage Deb is obviously under the thrall, at least initially, of her boyfriend. There's an obvious bitterness, but it's tempered by a remarkable fairness -- if George was a Svengali, as he sometimes comes across, the present-day Unferth seems to give him somewhat of a pass because of his youth.) The young Unferth's Christianity might not have lasted long, but her explanations of it are beautiful:

I liked being a Christian, seeing the beautiful in the ugly and attributing it to a Thing higher than myself. I was no longer looking at the world alone… I liked how confusing Christianity was, how it required so much explaining: why we'd sip blood, why God would punish us, why He'd punish someone else and pretend it was us, and so on. The enormous mystery of God was much more congruous with my disorienting experience of the world than the arrogant certainty of atheism.

It's not surprising that Deb and George don't last all that long in Central America (though it's much longer than you'd expect, given their series of disappointments and violent illnesses). The book opens with Unferth's parents picking George and her up at the US-Mexico border, after they've decided to give up and come back home. The first place they go: McDonald's. It's not that they've surrendered completely; it's that they -- well, it's that Deb has realized that she's tired, she's falling out of love, and that maybe there are other revolutions that she can fight at home. The wars in Central America might be fueled by tortillas and beans; the ones up here generally run on hamburgers and fries.

The genre of the memoir has taken it on the chin lately, and there's no arguing that there are some comically low cards in the autobiographical deck. (Before you write that memoir about how your awesome parenting skills helped save your genius child from her minor ragweed allergies, you might want to consider that it's probably going to make her resent you more than she probably already does.) But Revolution proves that not only is the genre not dead, it still has a lot to teach us. Unferth's story is fascinating, but there's no point in the book where the reader feels that she considers herself special -- her humility and perspective are remarkable, and very, very rare.

But it's the quality of the prose that makes Revolution one of the best memoirs of the past several years. It's a difficult book to stop reading; Unferth is charming, charismatic, and breathtakingly smart. (Consider: “The Nicaraguans wanted land, literacy, a decent doctor. We wanted a nice sing-a-long and a ballet. We weren't a revolution. We were an armed circus.”) And it's also a fascinating perspective on the late '80s, an era which most of us remember -- if we remember it all -- with images of Colonel North lying in front of Congress, President Reagan claiming that he didn't remember (hopefully, he was lying about that, but who knows?) the details of his administration's illegal arms trade.

It's really just perfect, and it's more than enough to catapult Unferth into the ranks of America's great young writers. There is, she seems to indicate, a kind of redemption in work, of giving yourself to a cause you believe in, no matter how unsuccessful your fight is. There is a redemption, an almost holy one, in liberation. The '80s are well behind us now, and the causes the young Deb and George didn't turn out the way they wanted them to. Revolution teaches us that it's not over, though, even when it's over. La revolución está muerto, viva la revolución.

Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth
Henry Holt and Company
ISBN: 0805093230
224 Pages