Joshua Furst’s novel Revolutionaries, which offers a fictional portrait of Abbie Hoffman, was published in April 2019 and was reviewed in the New York Times and the New Yorker. In the novel, the Abbie character is named Lenny Snyder. His son, Fred, tells his story.
I read the reviews before I read the novel; the reviews colored my view of the characters and the plot. It wasn’t for fun or entertainment that I read Lenny’s story, but rather because my 1996 biography of Abbie Hoffman, For The Hell of It, will be translated into French and published in France in 2020.
Curiously, or perhaps not, more biographies have been written about Hoffman than about any other white radical in the Sixties. Also more novels have been written about him than any of his contemporaries and his comrades.
“Why is that?” I asked myself before dipping into Furst’s Revolutionaries, and, while the novel gave me some answers, it didn’t answer my fundamental curiosity about Hoffman’s appeal for biographers and novelists.
In the Acknowledgement at the back of the book, Furst thanks all the people who helped him write Revolutionaries. He also thanks “Abbie Hoffman—provocation, inspiration—for having ever existed.” He adds, “We need your spirit in the world more than ever.” Furst may actually feel that way, but reading his novel, one might well come to the conclusion that we don’t need Abbie’s “spirit”—whatever that might be—at all today.
Near the end of Revolutionaries, the narrator, Fred, a fictional version of Abbie Hoffman’s real son, America, wonders how the “bad” parts of a person can “exist simultaneously with the good.” He explains, “They’re inseparable from the good, so entwined that the one can’t exist without the other, two versions of the same vision, a difference in point of view.”
That passage seems to be intended as the novel’s take-away; the lesson the reader is supposed to learn or discover. Reading Revolutionaries one can’t help but come to the conclusion that Furst has or had ambivalent feelings about Abbie. Granted, young Fred isn’t exactly the same as Furst. But by telling the story from Fred’s point of view, Furst seems to share it, adopt it, and embrace. For all practical, literary purposes Fred is Joshua and Joshua is Fred.
It may be that the only real or authentic way to tell Abbie’s story is to tell it from opposing points of view. After all, Abbie was diagnosed as bi-polar. He swung back and forth from manic to depressed. He was a utopian and a dystopian. For him, Woodstock signaled the birth of the Age of Aquarius and the beginning of American fascism. Give hippies marijuana, rock ‘n’ roll and sex and they’d be easily pacified and co-opted, he argued.
Abbie Hoffman actually had two sons, Andrew and America, who had two different mothers. I knew both of them, though I have not seen them or had any contact with them for many years. Fred is clearly inspired by America; his mother was Anita Hoffman, who died of cancer and whom I knew well during the last decade of her life when she lived near me in Sonoma County.
I imagine that Anita would not like the way she is portrayed in the novel, nor would she enjoy the fictionalization of Abbie’s and America’s life. She liked hagiography. Of the four Abbie biographies her favorite was Marty Jezer’s Abbie Hoffman, American Rebel (1992), which took as gospel Abbie’s version of his own life, Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture (1980), a false document if ever there was one.
Michael and Robbie Meeropol, the sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, didn’t like the way that E.L Doctorow fictionalized their family in The Book of Daniel (1971, which has been called “a semi-historical novel.”
Furst has Lenny Snyder, his stand-in for Abbie, do things that Abbie probably never did, though I can’t prove it.
Revolutionaries makes me wonder all over again about the ethics of fiction writing, and about what Hunter S. Thompson called the literary “cannibalization” of the lives of real people. Novelists have been doing that ever since the birth of the novel in Europe. Furst follows in their footsteps, and like them is guilty of cannibalization. The only punishment seems to be bad reviews and lousy sales.
The dead can’t sue for libel; also, it’s unlikely that America Hoffman would sue for invasion of privacy, though he might have a legal leg to stand on. My own feeling is that Revolutionaries is a passable ersatz version of Abbie Hoffman’s life; it’s not awful and it’s not really good, either.
Furst’s novel reinforces my belief that biographers and fiction writers have looted Abbie’s life precisely because it is loot-able. It’s on the historical record and public information, and it is rich in ambiguity and contradiction. Anyone can make of it what he or she wants to make of it, with only one’s own conscience as a guide.
In 1978, I published a novel in which the main character, Kenny Love, was inspired by Abbie, who provided a blurb that said, “an uncanny accurate portrayal of the underground world.” Bill Kunstler called it “a compelling novel of underground life.” Kunstler didn’t mean to be ironical or sarcastic.
Abbie did, though readers would not have know that I helped him skip bail and go underground, lived with him in Mexico in 1975, when he was in exile and wanted by the police, and then reconnected with him when he surrendered to the authorities and served a brief time in prison. Both Bill and Abbie were kind to say the things they did about my novel.
Doris Lessing came close to the truth when she called it “revolutionary romanticism.” She certainly knew what she was talking about. A member of the Communist Party in Rhodesia and in England, she was for a time a good revolutionary romantic. One of the problems with revolutionary romantics is that some of the time some of them swing to the opposite end of the spectrum and become conservative skeptics and cynics and write about “The God that failed,” the God being communism.
Revolutionaries has both romanticism and cynicism. It’s all jumbled up, rather than fused into an artistic whole.
The review of Furst’s novel I found most intriguing was the review that David Ulin wrote and published in The Forward, the newspaper that calls itself “Jewish. Fearless.”
The Forward was a good place for Ulin’s review. Abbie Hoffman was born a Jew and died a Jew. He was Jewish at the New York Stock Exchange, (mocking the moneychangers in the temple of capitalism), at the Pentagon (levitating the dybbuk in the war machine), and in Julius Hoffman courtroom (where he accused the judge of sucking up to the powers that be. Abbie’s body language was Old World Jewish and his humor was Jewish.
In his review in The Forward, Ulin wrote, “It’s hard to write historical fiction about recent history. That’s because history itself is, or has become, its own kind of fiction, told and retold, preserved in sound and image, as if these were windows we might open and climb through.”
Perhaps. I would add that it’s challenging to write complex yet endearing works of fiction, period, whether they’re set in the past or the present.
Readers today want to be told that the novel they’re reading, or are about to read, is based on a true story. They’re skeptical of the imagination. Revolutionaries appeals to that craving for fact and actuality, though it also divagates from them. It’s Joshua Furst’s recreation of the past to suit his own moral imperatives and those of his friends, editors and publisher at Knopf. After all, he, too, wants to survive in the literary marketplace. What would Abbie say? “Steal This Book.”