How Richard Barager’s novel provides a powerful historical context to the critical moral choice awaiting us in November.
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.
It is said that if an author does not cry at least twice while writing a novel, there is no reason to write it. Ken Pipes and Gene Ross gave me plenty of reason to write this story.
FP: Altamont Augie is unique among literary works of fiction about the Sixties in its treatment not of the Generation Gap, but of a conflict within the Baby Boom generation, a “peer gap” if you will. Your author’s comments on Amazon call it, “…the seldom-told story of campus showdowns between Students for a Democratic Society and Young Americans for Freedom, student activists of the New Left and New Right battling for a generation’s political soul—a battle that rages still.”
What makes you say that this battle does rage on?
Barager: The great untold story of the Sixties—at least untold in American literary fiction—is of the ideological civil war that took place among the new youth culture of the day, the Port Huron Statement of SDS squaring off against the Sharon Statement of YAF. The defining issue then was Vietnam, with YAF wanting to confront worldwide communism to preserve American liberty and SDS desiring instead to remake America into a pacifist society free of social inequity. But I believe they were fighting over an even more universal political concern: the natural tension between liberty and equality—and the proper calibration between the two—in a constitutional republic.
The conflict dramatized in my novel between the New Left and New Right in the 1960s never really ended. The New Left would go on to dominate academia, the arts, and media, while the New Right would give rise to the Reagan Revolution, talk radio, and the Tea Party. The New Right’s greatest triumph was the Reagan Revolution; the New Left’s greatest triumph was the insertion of Barack Obama into the White House.
The Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold ObamaCare has guaranteed that the 2012 election will once again, as in the Sixties, be a national referendum on the proper weighting of the competing first principles of liberty and equality. For the Left, which is in general more concerned with equality than liberty, ObamaCare promotes social justice by redistributing wealth and guaranteeing equal access to health insurance to all Americans. To the Right, which is in general more concerned with liberty than equality, ObamaCare represents government coercion of the many to provide health insurance to the few who lack it, thereby establishing a dangerous precedent for future government coercions to curtail individual liberty in the name of “the general welfare.”
Election 2012 is a plebiscite on whether ObamaCare strikes the right balance between the first principles of equality and liberty or not. The stakes could not be higher. Liberty in the absence of civic virtue and obligation leads to chaos and survival of the fittest; equality without regard for merit or personal property leads to tyranny and national mediocrity. We must strike the right calibration.
My novel, hopefully in an entertaining and thought-provoking way, provides historical context that helps frame the choice.
FP: I would like to refer to two book reviews of Altamont Augie posted on the social media site Goodreads (first review, second review). The first is a young woman who is only 23 years old; the second is a Canadian woman who lived through the Sixties and had fixed views of the decade prior to reading your book. These readers appear to be more evidence of Ed Gillespie's assertion that politics lies downstream of culture, and why having conservatives active in the arts is so critical to our cause. Your thoughts?
Barager: Politics is downstream from culture. Does anyone doubt the political impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century? Or of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Cancer Ward, with its symbolic contempt for twentieth century totalitarianism? Literary fiction’s use of descriptive detail and drama to reveal character and theme show us, more than any other art form, how the world really works.
I take great satisfaction in knowing that the two women whose reviews you cited were moved by my novel to see the ideological civil war between the New Left and New Right—and their political descendants—differently than they did before. They entered David Noble’s world, the world of an instinctual conservative—the world of The Other— and were deeply affected by it. It is the highest compliment a novelist can be paid.
The arts and literary fiction in particular can sometimes persuade where polemic cannot. The fictive dream immerses readers in an experience of time and place and circumstance otherwise inaccessible to them—often from the viewpoint of a character they would have little contact with in real life. A sympathetic protagonist is presented with a moral dilemma. Resolution of the dilemma, through a critical moral choice, leads to an emotionally powerful and redemptive climax that is capable of altering readers’ worldviews.
Even, perhaps, their view of the proper calibration between liberty and equality.
FP: Richard Barager, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview and congratulations on the awards that Altamont Augie has won. We wish you the best.
Barager: And thank you and David Horowitz and Michael Finch for being such wonderful patrons of my story.
Purchase Altamont Augie here.
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