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Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Richard Barager, a San Diego nephrologist who is the author of the award-winning novel Altamont Augie, a compelling and passionate reappraisal of the 1960s that, as Mark Tapson said in Frontpage’s review of this story, crackles with contemporary resonance.
Dr. Barager believes the two finest callings in life are doctor and writer, the one ministering to the human condition, the other illuminating it. Altamont Augie is the winner of a Silver Medal for Historical Fiction in the ForeWord Reviews 2011 Book of the Year Awards, a Gold Medal for Literary Fiction in the 2011 eLit Book Awards, and a Silver Medal for Fiction in the 2012 IPPY Regional Awards.
You can purchase Altamont Augie here.
FP: Richard Barager, welcome back to Frontpage Interview.
It was an honor and privilege to interview you for Frontpage back in July, 2011.
Now we are back for another interview to celebrate the fantastic news about the incredible awards that Altamont Augie has won.
I would like to talk to you today about how your novel provides a powerful historical context to the issues confronting us today. But first, let’s begin with you telling us about ForeWord Reviews and the significance of their Book of the Year Awards.
Barager: It’s a pleasure to be back on Frontpage, Jamie. Thank you for having me.
ForeWord Reviews is a print magazine and online review service that exclusively reviews small press titles. Their mission is to identify the best small press books for booksellers, librarians, and readers.
ForeWord’s Book of the Year Awards singles out the top three small press books of the previous year across a number of categories. The judging panel includes editors, professional reviewers, booksellers, and librarians. Winners were announced on the floor of this year’s American Library Association convention in Anaheim, which I was honored to attend. The competition can be pretty stiff. The winner of the Short Story category this year, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman, was also a finalist for the National Book Award.
FP: Critics—and presumably judges of book award contests—often use the phrase “characters who make us care” when praising a work of fiction. Why do readers care about David Noble, the protagonist of your story?
Barager: I think readers come to care about David on two levels, one conscious, the other not.
He is an orphan and serial foster child whose greatest fear in life is dying as anonymously as he was raised. So the circumstances he is born into make him an underdog, instantly and consciously sympathetic to most readers.
But he is not a victim. He puts himself through college by working on a roofing crew, then gives up his student deferment—and girlfriend Jackie, who makes him feel whole and identifiable, finally less anonymous—to enlist in the Marines, at a time when many of his peers were doing all they could to stay out of the military. When he returns from Vietnam and continues to champion the war by joining a conservative counter-protest group, he becomes a rebel—a rebel with a cause. A rebel who is handsome, courageous, and principled, though not without his flaws—our David is prone to brawling, and is not above using women for sex.
For all of this, he seems real, like readers know him, or could have known him. And they admire him. As one Amazon reviewer said: “I found myself identifying with David Noble…although I personally possess his superior qualities in minimal quantities, I found myself secretly wishing that I could be as heroic as he was.”
Which segues into the unconscious reason readers might care about David; he is a lowborn protagonist whose apotheosis is achieved by dint of character and conviction alone. To borrow what Norman Podhoretz said about Saul Bellow’s Augie March, David Noble “stands for the American dream of the inviolable individual who has the courage to resist his culture.”
We still love our cowboys, Jamie.
FP: The literary review journals Kirkus and Booklist each remark on the passion of your story. If emotion is the lifeblood of fiction, what is the emotional wellspring of your novel?
Barager: That’s easy: love and war. Let’s do love first.
The love affair between David and Jackie Lundquist dominates the second half of the novel. Jackie is the sexy Radical Queen of Students for a Democratic Society, while David, a marine fresh from the siege of Khe Sanh, becomes the leader of the campus chapter of YAF—Young Americans for Freedom, SDS’s conservative counterpart. This is akin to a dashing Israeli fighter pilot falling for an alluring Palestinian activist. But they can’t seem to get enough of each other—even though, as Jackie points out, there are some incompatibilities to surmount.
“To you Vietnam is a matter of national honor; to me it’s an abomination.”
Whatever. Love conquers all. Here’s what their reunion in San Francisco, on the eve of the notorious Altamont Speedway Concert, means to David:
Oxygen. That’s what it felt like…sweet, fresh oxygen, bubbling into his lungs, relieving the most horrible air hunger imaginable.
But the true emotional center of Altamont Augie was forged in the early months of 1968, in the blood red clay of Khe Sanh, when seven thousand cut-off and beleaguered marines made America wipe a tear from her eye and bow her head in gratitude.
My medical practice is located in Oceanside, California—home to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. I take care of a lot of ex-marines. In researching this story, I questioned dozens of them to see if any had served in Vietnam and fought at Khe Sanh. I found several who had, including Staff Sergeant Earnest Ross, who was not only at Khe Sanh, but was also a drill instructor at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego in 1966, the year David Noble enlisted in the marines. Had David been real, Sergeant Ross would have been his drill instructor during boot camp.
I also discovered that the real-life commander of the rifle company I inserted David Noble into—Bravo Company, which suffered some of the most grievous losses at Khe Sanh, but which also figured prominently in the decisive attack that broke the siege of the forty thousand North Vietnamese Regulars encircling Khe Sanh Combat Base—lived within five miles of me. Captain—now Colonel—Kenneth Pipes graciously agreed to meet with me and became another invaluable source in writing the scenes at Khe Sanh.
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