By Joshua Furst
The 1960s have settled into our cultural memory as a freighted, dissonant symbol, overburdened by contradiction. It was a period of love and bloodshed, a vision of peace floating on a tide of war, the era of Woodstock and Altamont, John Lennon and Charles Manson, nonviolent protest next to armed resistance, civil rights, psychedelia, police brutality and domestic terrorism. What we remember depends on what abandoned dream we care to resurrect. But strip away the drugs, the sex, the rock ’n’ roll, peel off the laminate commodification of the era, and what remains to distinguish it is the poignant reveille of a culture startling into awareness of its own conscience.
Joshua Furst’s second novel, “Revolutionaries,” is about the children of postwar tranquillity who, aghast at the tacit arrangements that underwrote their childhood, poured out of suburbia and into the streets. It is about the ones who really meant it — neither those playing at insurrection, nor the ideologues who, in their sincerity, betray a fatal affinity for dogma. Furst is concerned instead with the rabble-rousers, the mischief-makers, the dreamers and the prophets: those whose imaginations nourish movements, and who vouchsafe a glimpse of the new world to come.
The central figure in this story, Lenny Snyder — a lightly fictionalized Abbie Hoffman — looks to “old-timers” like the “Sid Caesar of the counterculture.” Equal parts Trotsky and Alfred Jarry, Groucho Marxist to the core, Lenny confides to his son, Freedom (Fred), that he’s never met a system he didn’t want to explode. He and his band of pranksters — a mix of real figures, like Phil Ochs, and stand-ins for real figures, like Sy Neuman (Jerry Rubin) — drop dollar bills on traders at the New York Stock Exchange, haul tenement trash to Lincoln Center, mail joints to establishment bigwigs and nominate a pig for president. In Washington, “they raised the Pentagon off its foundation, levitated it 24 feet above the Earth” in psychic protest.
Much of this is historical. Like Hoffman, Lenny cut his teeth with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and honed his tactics organizing stunts on the Manhattan streets. His charisma and stagy inventiveness fit perfectly with the era’s ascendant mass media, the subversive symbolism embedded in his protests permitting him, as he sees it, to have “won by losing,” goading the powerful into overreach and leveraging the ironic latitudes of poverty to point up the hypocrisies of convention. Freedom, one might say, is just another word for nothing left to lose.