Books About Rebel Lives

A look at five fascinating and irresistible reads.

rlReprinted from

When Skateboards Will Be Free
By Saïd Sayrafiezadeh (2009)

1. This intensely poignant, beautifully rendered memoir tells the story of a child brought up in a Trotskyist family in America. The author's mother (nee Finkelstein) was a member of the Socialist Workers Party who, in the 1960s, married a fellow party member, an Iranian-born graduate student who left her nine months after Saïd was born. Told by the author without recrimination, the story opens a window onto the bizarre universe of a radical who thinks and acts as if "the revolution" is around the corner while her child has to live among the aliens inhabiting the real world. The flavor of this affecting tale is captured in the title anecdote: The narrator, who fervently desires a skateboard, is denied this wish by his mother, who tells him that the $11 price is a form of capitalist theft and that he needs to wait for the revolutionary day "when skateboards will be free." This book gave me shivers each time I picked it up.

Sabbath's Theater
By Philip Roth (1995)

2. Philip Roth is America's greatest literary rebel—a pusher of envelopes and provoker of critics and audiences alike. No Rothian creation, not even Portnoy, is more outrageous, more a desecrater of proprieties and transgressor of taboos than the lascivious puppeteer Mickey Sabbath. A rebel against decorum and decency, rectitude and cant, life and death, Mickey is celebrated by his creator as the "King of the kingdom of the unillusioned, emperor of no expectations, crestfallen man-god of the double cross." Not merely an imp but an ogre of the perverse, he is both a passionate nihilist and hopeless romantic, whose rebellion as revealed in this remarkable novel is finally against the losses that overtake us all. The deaths of his lover, his mother and father, and his beloved older brother, Morty, shot down over Japan at age 21 on the doorstep of peace, are memorialized in an aria that expands to encompass history itself and may be the most extended lament for human loss in all literature. "Goodbye Greece and goodbye Rome," and goodbye Morty, too.

Altamont Augie
By Richard Barager (2011)

3. This self-published first novel is the quintessential story of the radical generation, its title a hybrid of the 1969 concert that was instantly tagged as the "Death of the Sixties" and the Saul Bellow hero in search of an identity. Barager's Augie is pitched as the antihero of the decade, a radical involved in a love triangle with the "Red Queen" of the antiwar movement and its violent leader who is then overtaken by second thoughts. Augie joins the Marines and leaves the campus furies to go off to Vietnam and fight the Battle of Khe Sanh. On his return to the States he joins the pro-war campus right but also resumes the romance with his radical amour. No other novel so crystallizes the themes, flavors and attitudes of an era with such dramatic force. It culminates in the bloody bacchanalia of Altamont and in a personal tragedy, all of it vividly rendered and irresistibly related.

Family Circle
By Susan Braudy (2003)

4. A richly drawn portrait of one of the first families of American radicalism and its prodigal daughter, Kathy Boudin, who graduated from civil-rights protests to terrorist war games with deadly results. Boudin participated in actions that killed half a dozen people and resulted in a human wreckage well beyond that. The most famous murders she took part in left nine children without fathers, among them the first black officer ever hired by the Nyack, N.Y., police force. Through the detailed portraits of the characters assembled in "Family Circle," it becomes evident that the central drama is not political, as the protagonists presume, but psychological and moral. The compassionate desire to save the world reveals itself to be the expression of a narcissism that ends up destroying not only innocent victims but the Boudin family itself. The author's diligence in pursuing her subject yielded a revealing prison interview with Kathy, who had justified her actions to press and parole boards alike as motivated by compassion for black people yet years into her sentence was still unaware that the black officer she helped to murder had left a son behind.

Red Love
By David Evanier (1991)

5. Once upon a time—and not too long ago—a generation of Americans got it into their heads that they were Bolsheviks. Their dream was to create a Soviet America, which would bring peace and social justice to everyone. David Evanier, who knew these Bolsheviks intimately and has mastered their history in detail, has written an irresistible novel about their misdeeds and follies, none greater than their belief in the Stalinist future. At the center of his book is the iconic couple Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (here renamed Solly and Dolly Rubell) and their saga of espionage and execution. The narration is delivered with a Rothian wit appropriate to the bizarre reality it reflects: "This is a novel about the joys of espionage," the narrator informs us. Its author is, of course, as serious—and bitter—as his tale of betrayal and illusion merits.


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