One of Ché Guevara’s most oft-repeated quotes was “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” Author Neil Gordon’s new novel, The Company You Keep, could easily have used this quote as its subtitle. The story of a fictional former member of the Weather Underground who has been living under an assumed name since the early 1970s after a failed bank robbery where a bank guard was murdered, Gordon’s novel is a thriller of a tale.
The primary protagonist-one Jason Sinai who assumed the identity of a dead man named James Grant after going underground-finds himself involved with old friends from his Weather Underground days almost by chance after his true identity is accidentally discovered by a young and somewhat obnoxious news reporter in Albany, NY.
This discovery leaves Sinai nee Grant with two choices-turn himself in and lose his daughter to his ex-wife-a drug-addled rich former movie actress with a powerful political father who has done little to take care of their daughter due to her drug problems–; or go on the run without his daughter in order to find his fellow weathermembers and clear his name. He chooses the latter and leaves his daughter in a hotel room in Manhattan with instructions for his lawyer sister-in-law to get custody. As the story unfolds, the reader is treated to a political discussion of the Sixties and a heart-wrenching story with as many intellectual and emotional twists and turns as the New Left in its late ‘602 early ’70s heyday.
Gordon tells his story via a series of emails from Sinai and his friends (including former weathermembers, dope growers, his current (Republican) lover, a former FBI agent, and the Albany reporter, among others) to his daughter living in London in 2006. The purpose of the emails is to convince her to testify at the parole hearing of a fellow weathermember who is in prison for her role in the robbery that Sinai was a part of. Although the emails are extraordinarily long for emails, the stories they convey make their length quite plausible. Indeed, who but an aging radical used to writing wordy and sometimes confusing revolutionary tracts a la the early Weatherman statements would write emails in the same vein?
While the reader races from page to page caught up in the telling of the story, s/he becomes familiar with the history of Weather, the New Left, COINTELPRO, and Gordon’s perspective on the legacy of this particular trend in the Movement. That perspective goes something like this-it was the movement against racism and imperial war that was the true democratic movement of the period, not the New Right that was quietly organizing itself at the time and now controls our political landscape. There is an argument made by the Albany reporter to this effect in a conversation he has with a young woman who could easily be Anne Coulter’s understudy (and for whom he has lustful thoughts).
In spring of 1998 I spoke with Neil over lunch and a few beers about the Weather Underground, the New Left and other aspects of the period we call the Sixties. At the time he was just beginning to gather ideas and information for this novel. After my conversation and a number of intermittent emails, he contacted several former members of the Weather Underground and began a series of conversations with them. It was from these and other conversations that he developed the basis for his story. One thing he said to me back in 1998 struck me as being incredibly astute: (I paraphrase here) How, he wondered, could the members of Weather have been so correct in their analysis and so wrong in what do about it? Unfortunately, that question could easily serve as an epitaph for many of the New Left’s more revolutionary members.
Back to the love. If there’s one thing that comes across in Gordon’s story and its various twists and turns, it is that love is the most important thing. The final emails reveal an incredible web of relationships that would are woven together so cleverly that even the most jaundiced reader can only marvel at the author’s storytelling ability. All of these relationships are built not on blood, not on marriage, but on love. It may not be all you need, as the Beatles would have us believe, but, like Bob Dylan said: “No matter what you think about it/You just won’t be able to do without it.”
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org