Years of rage

September 12, 2012, 7:40 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Growing up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., I loved reading coverage of the latest Senators baseball game in the sports section of the Washington Post. I would pore over those stories, even though I’d already listened intently to every pitch on my transistor radio the night before. It was fascinating to see how journalists rendered the events I had experienced live for posterity. More creepily, it illustrated the mysterious process by which the fluid present congeals into the icy past.

Imagine, then, the unsettling thrill of beholding this cruel chemistry taking its toll not merely on a ballgame, but on virtually the entire swathe of evolving American cultural and political history through which I happen to have lived my life. Imagine further that the work I’m describing is no longer simply a newspaper’s first draft of (sports) history, but rather the sober, thoughtful recreation of those events by a mature novelist of roughly my own age and social class.

For readers who grew up in the 1960s, this will be the exhilarating, but eerie, experience of reading Kurt Andersen’s new novel, True Believers. It’s the fictional memoir of Karen Hollander, a prominent litigator, author, and law school dean. We open in the year 2013. Hollander, 64, has just withdrawn her name from consideration as a U.S. Supreme Court nominee. In the second paragraph, she reveals a secret that has tormented her since her youth.

“I once set out to commit a spectacular murder, and people died,” she says. The book’s considerable suspense derives from her “careful unpacking” of this story, “like a bomb.”

Full disclosure: Andersen, 58, is a college classmate of mine. We worked together on a book project 30-some years ago, and our paths have crossed occasionally since then, both professionally and socially. Plea in mitigation: Damn near anyone reviewing this book is likely to know Andersen, given his omnipresence in media and publishing circles. Even if they don’t, they’ll still have an incentive to butter him up.

Andersen has already published two well-reviewed novels, Heyday and Turn of the Century, along with several essay and humor collections.He co-founded Spy magazine, served as editor-in-chief of New York magazine, and launched a trade-news Web site (where I worked) called, which covered, inter alia, the media and book publishing industries. These days he’s probably best known as the host of Studio 360, a nationally syndicated public radio show about culture and the arts.

The fictional Karen Hollander turns 18 at the height of the Sixties counterculture, in 1968. (Andersen’s last novel, Heyday, was set in 1848, another pivotal moment of political and cultural upheaval.) One of the book’s epigrams, and a recurring reference throughout, is a line from William Wordsworth’s defensively titled poem, “The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement”: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”

In her manuscript — the novel’s text — Hollander explains that she grew up in Wilmette, Illinois, the upper-middle class suburb of Chicago; went to Harvard College and then Harvard Law School; worked as a Legal Aid Society lawyer in New York; became a partner at the country’s “nineteenth largest law firm” and, later, a high-level Justice Department official; married; gave birth to a mixed-race daughter; had an affair (but so did her husband); divorced; and now treasures a close relationship with her even more thoroughly mixed-race granddaughter. Every detail of her adult life, and the lives of her friends, seems to have been shaped, overshadowed, footnoted, or rendered ironic by the experience of having lived through the civil rights activism, antiwar radicalism, and drug-enhanced narcissism and criminality of the 1960s.

Hollander’s secret implicates two childhood chums from Wilmette: Chuck Levy, an aspiring military pilot with guy-next-door good looks, and Alex Macallister, who later becomes a famous conceptual artist. In junior high school, the three of them “bond” over Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. They engage in elaborate role-playing games in which they embark on make-believe missions to assassinate assorted criminal masterminds and nuclear-armed madmen. Having “fed their childhood upon dreams,” as Wordsworth writes in his “French Revolution” poem, all three go on to Harvard College. As freshmen, they each confront that horrendous year, 1968.

Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated that year. In Vietnam more than 3,000 American soldiers died in a single week. A network evening news broadcast showed, in Hollander’s telling, “a skinny man in shirtsleeves, the chief of the South Vietnamese national police, saunter[ing up to] a handcuffed Vietcong wearing a plaid shirt, [taking] a snub-nose revolver from his holster, [raising] it a few inches from the man’s right temple, and [firing], executing him with a single shot.”

Looking back across the years, Hollander dutifully brushes in the shades of grey she had missed at the time: “We know now that the prisoner … had previously killed one of his executioner’s men and the man’s wife and children. We know now that the general, the cold-blooded killer who so shocked my conscience that evening, had been considered a humanitarian figure in South Vietnam.”

Andersen’s historical research is thorough, sometimes to a fault. Even Andersen seems to tire of it at times, resorting at one point to a hoary transition: “The newspaper front page might as well have been spinning toward me each morning, like in an old movie,” before firing off sake-of-completeness references to a student sit-in at Columbia, riots in Paris, and demonstrations in West Germany, Italy, Prague and Zagreb. But these are nitpicks.

In her New York Times review of True Believers, Francine Prose wrote that it was “among other things, a novel about the powerful influence literature can exert on life.” She’s right, but her observation makes the novel sound more daunting than it is — as if only a Harold Bloom or, well, a Francine Prose could appreciate it.

In reality, the book is accessible and often funny. Hollander’s coarse, caustic boyfriend, for instance, mocks Catholicism’s ritualized confessions with this pithy phrase: “Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat.” When Hollander’s friend, artist-on-the-make Macallister, learns that Andy Warhol has been shot by an unhinged writer in June 1968, he wonders “how long he should wait to phone the Warhol people and ask whether his internship [is] still on.”

Anderson has given us an absorbing, well-told tale. It’s also the best reverie on the 1960s and their legacy — scrupulously neither glorified nor demonized — that I’ve seen.

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