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by Richard Barager
Interloper Press, 300 pgs.
“If you can remember the sixties,” quipped Timothy Leary, “you weren’t there.” Well, for those who can’t remember, or weren’t ever there, Richard Barager’s new novel Altamont Augie thrusts the reader into the torrent of that tumultuous era more successfully, and from a more unique perspective, than any I’ve read.
The book’s quirky title holds twofold significance. For anyone who does remember the sixties, “Altamont” is somber shorthand for the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, a rock concert in late 1969 attended by hundreds of thousands and featuring powerhouse bands of the day like the Jefferson Airplane and the Rolling Stones, who headlined the show. The concert is most notorious for its degeneration into increasing crowd violence, culminating in the stabbing death of a drug-fueled, gun-wielding concertgoer by a member of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, whom the Stones had hired for security – all captured on film for the documentary Gimme Shelter. Long forgotten is another death at that concert – a man was found drowned in an irrigation canal. The victim’s name remains unknown, and the mystery of his identity lies at the heart of this novel.
“Augie” is a nod to the Saul Bellow classic of American literature, The Adventures of Augie March, featuring a character who, in the words of critic Norman Podhoretz, “stands for the American dream of the inviolable individual who has the courage to resist his culture.” Author Barager’s Augie is David Noble, a young man so repulsed by his generation’s descent into a violent, irrational anti-Americanism that he impulsively enlists in the Marines to do his patriotic part to ensure American victory in the Vietnam War. Little does he realize what a trial-by-fire boot camp will be, and that he will find himself in a vision of hell to rival the nightmarish work of Hieronymus Bosch, at the 1968 battle of Khe Sanh.
After his stint in Vietnam, David returns to his girlfriend Jackie, who runs with the radical anti-war crowd, the Marxist-inspired members of the Students for a Democratic Society. The SDS strove to tear down America’s democratic institutions and support her defeat on the battlefields of Vietnam. David Noble now finds himself fighting a war at home as well:
SDS had to be confronted – even if it meant pissing Jackie off. Vietnam was being lost not on the battlefield, where the NVA had yet to win a major engagement, but at home, on college campuses. Nixon may have won the election, but the New Left was winning the fight for public opinion, the drumbeat for peace at the expense of victory growing louder by the day. What good was peace born from a self-inflicted loss harming national honor? These things matter…
Indeed they do. Just as they still matter now, forty years later, when the progressive Left, after waging a similar anti-war crusade against former President George W. Bush and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, has succeeded in putting a fellow Alinskyite in the White House.
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