Sunday, June 5, 2011

Gimme Shelter: A Review of Altamont Augie

The 1960s hangs over us like an omnipresent weight, a cloud cover frozen against a hillside, a dream one can not escape from, replaying itself over and over again in our minds and lives.
For some it is still the Age of Aquarius, free love, flower power, and the moment in which the revolution was at hand. They will retell this story forever. For others, it is as Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” reflected on an old ballplayer, “getting old sitting around thinking about it, boring stories of glory days.” In other words, enough already.
But, most aptly, it is described by the writing team of David Horowitz and Peter Collier in the title of their seminal book, Destructive Generation. One thing that cannot be denied is that the decade touched all of us, for good or ill. It is a decade that transcends time.
The ‘60s has been written about more than any other decade since, well, probably the ‘60s — the 1860s and the Civil War. The 1960s was also a Civil War, but of a different stripe; it was all about politics, race, culture, music, and a foreign war. More than anything, what it was really all about — as all stories of our lives are about — was people: individual lives that were touched, loved, created, burned, and destroyed. That story, the one about people — and how they were personally affected by the great issues that lay over that tumultuous decade, a story that is also free of rancor, hate, partisanship, and blind ideology — has escaped us. Until now.
And this flowering of art, as so often happens, comes out of obscure and unknown fields. Richard Barager is a nephrologist (kidney doctor) who has never written a novel before in his life. Well, God must have kept him waiting for a reason, because his first novel, Altamont Augie, is as David Horowitz writes, “the novel of the Sixties.” It is surely that, and more.
Altamont Augie is told through the eyes of a young man who works for a Hollywood production company and who takes a trip up to Altamont in 1999 to work on a trailer for the 30th anniversary re-release of Gimme Shelter. The story begins and ends with his telling of his revelations.
It is a love story above all else, about how love endures through war and politics; how it endures though a decade like none other. That alone would make this a very readable book and the author tells a great love story. But to weave that through the turmoil of Vietnam, the college campuses, the cultural breakdown, the racial shifts, and to keep a story flowing and interesting is a singular accomplishment. And it is all here, from the battlefields at Khe Sanh to the fights on the campuses (in this case the University of Minnesota) to the drugs, sex (hang on to your hats on this one), and rock and roll. The ’60s rollick through these 295 pages like a spun spool but everything is somehow kept tight all the while.
David Noble is a tough-nosed kid from the hard tracks of life, his “rearing” to be found out soon enough in the book. He meets Jackie Lundquist, a daughter of a stable middle class family in the Twin Cities, while both attend the University of Minnesota. They fall in love, but as ultimately happens, cultures clash. David goes off to enlist in the Marines and ships out to Vietnam; Jackie becomes entangled in the war at home, joining SDS and becoming part of the New Left.
David’s daily letters to Jackie during his two-year tour go unanswered. He fights through the siege of Khe Sahn, learning about war firsthand, and when he finally returns home he joins the campus New Right’s Young Americans for Freedom. Jackie, meanwhile, has become further entrenched in the radicalism of the campus Left, shacking up with an SDS leader, experimenting with drugs. She is the epitome of a flower child. The two could not be more diametrically opposed. But again, love endures and the flame is rekindled.
From this point, things spin rapidly out of control. The ’68 Democratic Convention, the radicalizing and hardening of the leftist movement from peaceful campus protests and free love to the Black Panthers and calls of violence. The relationship becomes strained, though the passion never seems to subside.  Then they join together in San Francisco and travel to the Altamont Speedway, the scene where the tragic Rolling Stones concert of December of 1969 plays out and as the decade comes to a fittingly tragic close.
I come from a generation that will forever see the ’60s as that dark layer of clouds, a shroud over us, suffocating and unmovable. Go back to whence you came and leave us forever. But of course, “it” can’t go back, it is here, it will always be here. And one learns that just as the “radicals” or more apt, the destroyers, from that decade, who never “grew up” suffer from false illusions of glory and are trapped in their minds, so too, to a large extent, are those on the side that sees the ’60s as nothing but evil — the side I have been trapped in.
Richard Barager shows us a way out of the trap. And that way is ultimately through the things that transcend everyday lives, politics, and war. Those are things like love and honor; tragedy and redemption. Great art can inspire us in ways unspeakable and surely, at least for this writer, unprintable. A review needs to be written because this book deserves it. The moments, however, are rare when you gaze upon a work of art, listen to a great piece of music, or in this case, upon completion, set a book down and say “wow.”
This is one of them.

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