Harvard Radicals Play Spy Games in Sharp Andersen Tale: Review

'True Believers'
"True Believers" is written by Kurt Andersen. Source: Random House Inc. via Bloomberg

James Bond is the unlikely role model for the baby-boomer protagonists of “True Believers,” Kurt Andersen’s brisk and zeitgeisty novel about 1960s radicals and the lives they invented once the counterculture became the culture.

Bond leapt from the imagination of Ian Fleming in the 1950s as narrator Karen Hollander and her friends came of age in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette. His love of luxury brands, fancy gadgets and globe-trotting intrigue seems both quaint and prophetic in light of the 21st century’s online social networks, e-commerce and iEverything.

“The world must be crawling with make-believe secret agents,” Hollander muses. “Every day and night in every city on earth, aging children of both sexes fleetingly and half-consciously enact some version of the fantasy.”

Looking back from 2014, Hollander -- a 60-ish grandmother near the end of a career as a law-school dean, corporate litigator, U.S. Justice Department official and TV talking head for lukewarm Clintonian liberalism -- sees how her youthful ideals were in many ways as simplistic, and persistent, as the typical Bond intrigue. “The fictional template always lurked,” she says.

Hollander is planning a memoir that will expose a shameful incident from her college days, much to the alarm of her former fellow travelers: Alex, an international arts entrepreneur, and Buzzy, a more-conservative-than-thou recovering leftist. Her reminiscences build toward a Big Reveal of the secret they have carried since 1968 and its terrible consequences for a fellow Harvard student.

Smothers Brothers

Within that framework, Andersen takes us on a tour of affluent mid-century America, the land of Fresca and the Smothers Brothers and burgeoning passenger air travel. The inventory of Touch-Tone phones and SweeTarts can grow tiresome, but it exposes a sad truth about Hollander and her crowd: No matter how committed they thought they were to the Movement in the 1960s, they were mostly just a vast consumer market.

“Those years we turned 15 and 16, the universe did start revolving around us, affirming our adolescent monomania, making our fantasy of self-importance real,” Hollander recalls. “Everything we did and thought -- our new music, the new ways we dressed and talked, our libertine sensibilities, our real and fake idealisms -- became Topic A among the grown-ups.”

Spy Magazine

Andersen, co-founder of the 1980s satirical magazine Spy, has a keen eye for irony. Our post-9/11 skittishness about terrorism is contrasted with the frequent, almost casual bombings carried out by the Weather Underground in the 1960s and ’70s.

“Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn badly wanted to be revolutionary celebrities, household names, but they never were, not really, in their prime. Even after their nth bombing, the nightly news still had to identify them as ‘a radical group calling itself the Weather Underground,’” Andersen writes.

Civil-rights gains were for the most part the work of an earlier generation, as were many of the technological advances that paved the way for boomer tycoons like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (one character’s father helps invent the Internet). The campus peace movement may have brought down Lyndon Johnson, but it didn’t stop Richard Nixon’s rise or halt the war in Vietnam.

Like a Cold War spy novelist, Andersen creates a world of shifting identities. His adolescent protagonists pretend to track unsuspecting arch-villains through the country clubs and shopping malls of Wilmette. In college, their outrageous plot bears the marks of the same childish play-acting. In later life, Hollander learns that her closest confidants were never what they seemed -- they were double, even triple agents. Andersen’s true believers are neither.

“True Believers” is published by Random House (431 pages, $27). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Andrew Dunn is an editor at Bloomberg news. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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