Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Richard Barager, a nephrologist—kidney specialist—in private practice in San Diego who has twice received a San Diego County Medical Society Top Doctor award for distinguished care in his specialty. Dr. Barager is a champion of the healing power of literature who from time to time “prescribes” specific novels to patients to help them cope with their burden of illness. He has engaged the medical community at large in this endeavor via The Literary Doctor, a blog devoted to the use of literary fiction to help patients and physicians alike explore the meaning of human illness in a way scientific method cannot. He has long believed the two finest callings in life are doctor and writer, the one ministering to the human condition, the other illuminating it, both—when performed with compassion and knowledge—capable of transforming it. His new novel Altamont Augie is a dynamic, passionate, entertaining exploration of the 1960s from a wholly fresh perspective. David Horowitz has praised Altamont Augie in his blurb for the book: “”Richard Barager has written the novel of the Sixties–a passion-filled, pitch-perfect, roller coaster of a tale about the decade that divides us all.” Visit Richard Barager’s website at richardbarager.com.
FP: Richard Barager, welcome to Frontpage Interview. Tell us what inspired you to write Altamont Augie.
Barager: Thank you, Jamie. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to spend some time with Frontpage Magazine’s readers.
As is often the case, the subject matter chose me—seven years ago, during the Iraq war. The protests that flared up against the war reminded me of street protests I had witnessed in my youth against another war: Vietnam. Which got me thinking again about the 1960s, a decade that left an enormous cultural and psychological imprint on me. Yet I never really understood the Sixties, never knew what it all meant: the music and fashion, the war and protest, the racial strife and assassinations. Altamont Augie, then, is my humble exploration of the meaning and legacy of the 1960s.
FP: Why the title?
Barager: Altamont refers to something I had nearly forgotten about prior to researching the novel: The Altamont Speedway Concert, a rock festival held in the waning days of the 1960s. Altamont was a concert that went bad. Really bad. So bad, it is regarded by many as the metaphoric Death of the Sixties, the symbolic—and tragic—end of the utopian Age of Aquarius.
There were four deaths amidst the violence of Altamont, the most famous of which was the stabbing death of a black Berkeley teenager named Meredith Hunter by the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. But what intrigued me more than Hunter’s notorious slaying was a fatality nobody paid much attention to that day: that of a young man who, an hour into the show, inexplicably got up, walked over to the nearby California Aqueduct, plunged in and drowned. He would remain anonymous, unidentified, his body never claimed. Altamont Augie is this man’s imagined life story.
FP: Share the main essence and plot of your story with us—without giving away too much, of course.
Barager: Altamont Augie is the story of David Noble and Jackie Lundquist, a pair of ill-fated college lovers who clash over Vietnam when he joins the marines to fight a war she opposes. To Jackie, the grinding war in Vietnam is a failure of national conscience; to David, it is a failure of national honor. But neither her rise to fame as the antiwar movement’s alluring Radical Queen nor David’s counter-protest activities in support of the war can extinguish their passion for one another. Their love endures, even while fighting on opposite sides of the defining issue of their time, the New Left and New Right battling for a generation’s political soul—a battle that rages still, with Frontpage Magazine in the thick of things. Both their tumultuous affair and the Age of Aquarius itself tumble into the decade’s last great rock festival: Altamont, the metaphoric Death of the Sixties.
FP: Love endures between two people who take vehemently conflicting stances on the most divisive political issue of their time: Vietnam, a war that nearly tore America apart. Tell us why you chose this theme and what it means to you.
Barager: The theme you allude to is this: that it is possible to be in love with someone without being in love with their beliefs. It is crucial, I think, to have the hope that a relationship such as the one between David and Jackie can happen. Because if it can’t, we’re all in trouble. If we can’t have relationships with people who don’t share our belief systems, then society can’t function. Love for “the other” is a fundamentally American value enshrined in our founding documents and embedded in our Judeo-Christian heritage. Recognizing, however, that with “loving the other” comes risk. Sometimes considerable risk. As in this story.
FP: What distinguishes Altamont Augie from other novels about the Sixties?
Barager: The usual narrative of the Sixties has as its cornerstone the Generation Gap. But this was a passing, adolescent thing. Of more lasting consequence was a conflict within the Baby Boom generation itself, 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. It is the dramatization of this latter conflict that makes Altamont Augie different from other novels about the era that have preceded it.
The great untold story of the Sixties—at least untold in the cannon of literary fiction—is of the ideological civil war that took place amongst the new youth culture of the day, the Port Huron Statement of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) squaring off against the Sharon Statement of YAF (Young Americans for Freedom), the New Left and New Right vying for a generation’s political soul.
FP: In the narrative, we see that Caleb Levy has a fondness for Saul Bellow’s novel, The Adventures of Augie March. You are telling us something here. Please let us in a bit.
Barager: The use of the name Augie in my story and title is a tribute to one of the great novels of 20th century American literature—and to its protagonist, one of the greatest characters of 20th century American literature. What makes The Adventures of Augie March so great? How about this, the greatest opening sentence in 20th century American literature:
I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.
In his review of this novel in Commentary Magazine, Norman Podhoretz had this to say about Augie March:
“…The book is about America, or more specifically, the problem of the individual in a conformist society. Augie March stands for the American dream of the inviolable individual who has the courage to resist his culture—that figure whom, Tocqueville doubted could survive the realities of American life…”
My novel clutches this same dream to its breast.
FP: David Noble embraces American Exceptionalism. Your own thoughts on it?
Barager: The most compelling proof of the existence of American exceptionalism is the number of first generation immigrants living in the United States: 38.5 million. No other country even comes close; Russia is next, with 12.5 million. That immigrants from all over the world choose overwhelmingly to come—often while enduring great personal hardship—to a single country makes that country, by definition, exceptional.
And it has always been so, from the time the phrase was first coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America: “The situation of the Americans is therefore entirely exceptional, and it is to be believed that no [other] democratic people will ever be placed in it. Their wholly Puritan origin; their uniquely commercial habits; the very country they inhabit…”
G.K. Chesterton, in What I Saw in America, explained American exceptionalism like this: “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence…it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate authority from whom these equal rights are derived.”
For nonbelievers, there is the more secular definition from Seymour Lipset in American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword: “…the United States is a country organized around an ideology which includes a set of dogmas about the nature of a good society…the nation’s ideology can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.”
Whether you think American exceptionalism is a set of God-given values inextricable from a belief in God or a man-made ideology suitable for skeptics and believers alike depends on your belief or disbelief in God, but all you really need to believe about American exceptionalism is this: it is real, precious, and deserving of our loving and loyal stewardship.
FP: It is interesting that Jackie perpetually tries to mould David into her own image. And yet David accepts Jackie the way she is and doesn’t try to change her. Is there a larger lesson here on how the Left tries to reconstruct the human being?
Barager: There are two dynamics in play in this aspect of their relationship, which is exactly as you describe it—Jackie relentlessly trying to change David.
The Left’s most cherished value is equality and the Right’s most cherished value is liberty, which results in the Left wanting to remake society equal (with the Left’s self-conceived image as the ideal) and the Right wanting to be left alone to make of itself what it will. So Jackie, as a woman of the Left, seeks to remake David in the Left’s image, while David, a man of the Right, has no such desire to reconstruct Jackie. David is more tolerant of their differences because he is less concerned with equality than with liberty.
But there is an even more universal dynamic driving Jackie’s behavior, as alluded to by David in the story: “…that most distaff of urges, a woman’s desire to change her man.” As you have perhaps noticed, Jamie, the women in our lives seek to improve us.
FP: The themes and notions of honor and shame come across very powerfully in your story. The meaning for you personally?
Barager: Honor and shame are two sides of the same coin; one cannot exist without the other. And I am concerned that in many respects, we have become a more shameless society, and therefore a society lacking in honor. One of the sources I list in my bibliography is a book by James Bowman called Honor: A History. Bowman makes the point, as does Kyle Levy at the end of my story, that honor is a vital human instinct, without which human beings and the societies they form cannot endure. Bowman believes that the traditional honor culture of early America has collapsed and been replaced by a cult of celebrity. I have no doubt he is right. How many Americans under the age of 30 know who Lady Gaga is? And how many of them know the name of Salvatore Giunta, the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War? An ever-smaller percentage of Americans serve in our armed forces and an ever-larger number of Americans have no immediate family members who have ever been in the military. This is a recipe for a mercenary army. I think it fair to say that national honor in America as it was once known is in a state of serious neglect.
FP: And so while we are at it, tragedy and redemption.
Barager: Tragedy and redemption have much the same relationship as honor and shame. From tragedy redemption is possible and without tragedy—both personal, as in the story, and national, as with Vietnam—there can be no redemption. The best drama, in my opinion, has the classic Aristotelian components of a main character presented with a defining obstacle that forces the character to make a critical choice, an act of free will that can lead to honor or shame, tragedy or redemption.
FP: In his review of your novel in Pajamas Media, Mike Finch notes that the decade you are discussing “transcends time.” Your novel is very much about that. Kindly enlighten us as to your perspective and intended meaning here.
Barager: If indeed the era I have written about in the novel seems to transcend time, I think it is due not to anything particularly unique about the era in the grand scope of human history, but rather because the motivations of human beings throughout all of history have changed very little. Equality and liberty, honor and shame, and tragedy and redemption are universal concerns, and can be used in a dramatic way to illuminate timeless issues and timeless truths. As Charles Hill has written in his book Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, “Literature’s freedom to explore endless or exquisite details, portray the thoughts of imaginary characters, and dramatize large themes through intricate plots brings it closest to the reality of ‘how the world really works.’” In other words, sometimes only fiction can reveal the truth—of any era.
FP: What did the Sixties mean to you personally and what is the legacy of the 1960s in your view? David Horowitz and Peter Collier have called it, in the title of their seminal book: a Destructive Generation. In what ways do you see it that way—or not see it that way?
Barager: The Sixties for me were bipolar: I loved the music and fashion and movies and liberalization of sexual constraints, but was profoundly disturbed by the assassinations, race riots, and antiwar demonstrations—and by the creeping suspicion that the America I had been born into was under assault and might not survive.
The legacies of the Sixties are many: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Civil Rights Movement; Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and its no-strings-attached welfare benefits that created a permanent underclass; The Generation Gap between the Baby Boom generation and their parents of the Greatest Generation; lasting changes in American pop music and pop culture; Vietnam—a disaster for all concerned; the Sexual Revolution and the Pill, which paved the way for women to enter the workforce in large numbers and irrevocably altered traditional family life; landing a man on the moon; and finally, political activism—on the Left and the Right, as dramatized in my novel, with the activists of the New Left going on to dominate academia, the arts, and media, and the activists of the New Right giving rise to the Reagan Revolution, talk radio, and the Tea Party.
I see the New Left of the late Sixties much as described in Destructive Generation, as harmful nihilists, but the majority of Baby Boomers were not part of the New Left, and many of them went on to create and do wonderful things—and many of them honorably sacrificed for their country by serving in Vietnam. So I would not tar my entire generation as destructive.
FP: The antiwar movement was responsible for the communist victory in Vietnam and it paved the road for the subsequent mass genocide in Indochina. And the leftists who pretended they cared about the Vietnamese and Indochinese people stayed silent while the boat people died in shark-infested waters in the South Pacific and in the re-education camps that the communists set up. They remained indifferent and apathetic while Pol Pot massacred millions of Cambodians, a genocide that would never have occurred if America could have saved Vietnam from communism. What do you think of the Left’s role and behavior in all of this looking back?
Barager: I have a patient who came in to see me not long ago for care of his kidney transplant. He is Vietnamese and was tortured in one of the re-education camps you mentioned before escaping to America as one of the boat people. He came with nothing, put himself through college, and is now a well-paid engineer for a software company and a loyal American citizen. After concluding our medical visit, I told him I had written a novel about America in the late 1960s and proceeded to haul out a copy to show him. He looked at the cover, which as you know is an image of a peace sign with a pair of dog tags interlaced throughout it, and jabbed his finger over and over at the peace symbol.
“That why we lost the war! Right there! I hate that!”
North Vietnam could never have prevailed, he said, if America had remained engaged, as we did in Korea in confronting communism there.
My novel, of course, deals directly with this, as pointed out by Booklist magazine, the official review journal of the American Library Association, in its book review of Altamont Augie: “…And while his praise of the conservative movement may strike some as being to rosy, the portrayal of the hypocrisy, privilege, and bloodlust that drove many leftist movements of the time is striking…”
FP: Can you share with us a bit about your own personal journey while writing Altamont Augie? Was it easy, hard? Was there a catharsis or closure of any kind? A re-inspiration? Perhaps a changing of mind or heart…or a beginning of something new? Were there any surprises you did not expect? Did the characters follow your direction—or disobediently take on a life of their own?
Barager: In choosing to explore the Sixties, I felt a special obligation to give voice to the anguish felt by tens of thousands of GIs upon their return home to America. This snippet from the Midwest Book Review’s take on my story tells me I succeeded:
“Altamont Augie is a fascinating read of the harsher conflict of words on the home front and what they meant to the soldier.”
Writing this story was deeply emotional for me, so I am not surprised when it is described as “passion-filled,” “moving,” “intense,” or “gripping.” One of the things I did to prepare myself to write David’s story was to review hours of audio interviews of veterans who fought at Khe Sanh, the battle featured in my novel. Listening to their unassuming, modest voices was a profoundly humbling experience for me, and an uplifting one. I also conducted a series of face-to-face interviews with Khe Sanh veterans, including the company commander of the rifle platoon David was inserted into and a staff sergeant who not only fought at Khe Sanh, but was also a drill instructor at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego at the time my lead character would have gone through boot camp there. By the time David got into the thick of things at Khe Sanh, I had thoroughly bonded—in my mind and in my heart—with the men of 1⁄26 Bravo Company. And remain so: they invited me to this year’s Khe Sanh Veterans Association annual reunion.
But this is more than just a soldier’s story; it is about those who protested the war, too. It was through Jackie that I came to emotionally understand the antiwar movement David found so incomprehensible. And it was her character that surprised me the most. The more I got to know her and inhabit her the more naturally her scenes developed, until the things she did and said seemed to be the only possible things she could have done or said at that particular juncture. I had a great sense of purpose in writing David’s scenes, but I had great fun in writing Jackie’s. David loved her because he couldn’t help but love her, and neither could I. The second half of the book is Jackie’s story as much as David’s and she matches him scene for scene.
FP: Are you proud of and satisfied with the outcome? Your reaction to the responses you are receiving?
Barager: With the possible exception of Madame Bovary, there is no such thing as a perfect novel, so I am mindful of how hard I will need to work to improve my craft.
But that aside, I am very proud of Altamont Augie and gratified by the emotional impact it has had on readers and by the critical success it has enjoyed with reviewers. The feeling I get when readers email me to tell me how much the book affected them is not unlike the feeling I get from caring for patients with kidney failure: the incomparable high of having impacted a human life in a positive way. It is a feeling one can become addicted to.
FP: Richard Barager, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview. And thank you for writing this masterpiece that means so much to so many.
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