Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

BOOK REVIEW: 'True Believers': Fictional Saga of Midwestern Suburban Radicals Turned Establishment Icons Rings True

“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven!”

― William Wordsworth (1770-1850), "The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement"

It's 2014 and Karen Hollander -- formerly spelled Hollaender -- is nearing 65 and is writing her memoirs, to set the record straight on what really happened in 1968.


As Kurt Andersen tells her story in "True Believers" (Random House, 448 pages, $27.00) the prospect of the dean of the UCLA Law School writing about what really happened in the spring of 1968 terrifies at least one of her high school friends and doesn't exactly please her bioscientist daughter Greta, who thinks Karen may be suffering from Alzheimer's disease inherited from her Danish-born father Nils Hollaender. One fan of the project is her granddaughter Waverly, 17, an avid member of the Occupy movement, who's reading the pages as "Grams" produces them.


Karen, a lapsed Roman Catholic, considers the memoir to be her version of the public confession that she says predated the private confessional of the later church. The publisher who commissioned the book isn't aware of what Karen is doing, thinking instead it will be a conventional inspirational tale of a modern woman's success in the worlds of corporate law, government work and academia.

Kurt Andersen
Kurt Andersen

Andersen's vividly realized Karen has been everywhere, except Woodstock, and she saw Jimi Hendrix in the summer of 1967 -- right after her graduation from New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, Illinois -- fully two years before the artist's appearance at Woodstock. True story: Hendrix, a pre-boomer, born in 1942, was well known in Europe, but not so much in the States. So Karen Hollaender, Alex Macallister and Chuck Levy, the three inseparable Wilmette, Illinois devotees of the James Bond series created by Ian Fleming, saw Hendix perform at a stadium concert in Queens -- as an opening act for The Monkees!


(I'm looking for a member of my generation, the pre-boomers, to write about a book about a relatively unpublicized generation that the greedy boomers have appropriated as their own -- Hendrix, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Leonard Cohen, The Rolling Stones, just about everybody -- all born before the 1946 starting date of the boomer generation).

In her own mind Karen considers herself Hillary Clinton on the outside and Bill Clinton on the inside: the properly dressed "reliable" Karen Hollander is on the surface similar to former Goldwater girl Hillary Rodham who grew up in nearby Park Ridge and attended Maine Township High School and had a similar career arc -- contrasted with the sexually charged Bill Clinton that her CIA lover "Stewart Jones" calls "Fat Boy." Karen makes it clear in this first-person account that Stewart Jones, about seven or eight years younger than Karen, is not his real name. Divorced from modernist composer Jack Wu, Karen enjoys her sexual encounters with Stewart -- and vice versa. In 1964 high school freshman Karen met Hillary while the one-year-older future First Lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state was urging North Shore voters to cast a ballot for Barry Goldwater. Unlike Hillary Rodham, Karen Hollaender has always been a "progressive."


The Obama administration had extended an invitation to Karen to join the Supreme Court -- the last thing a woman who had been a clerk for Justice Brennan when she was a young law school graduate -- expected. She removed herself from consideration for the post to avoid the potential controversy that surfaced in 2008 when Barack Obama's friendship with 1960s former Weather Underground radicals Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn threatened to derail his campaign -- and contacted Stewart to help her get any files the FBI, the CIA or the NSA might have on her and her 1960s associates. The memoir Karen Hollander is writing is modeled to a great extent on Wordsworth's autobiographical epic poem "The Prelude," published after the poet's death and which incorporated the famous passage, "Bliss was it..." that literature student Karen Hollander believed summed up her life -- until it changed.


When I heard about "True Believers" I immediately thought of Bernardine Dohrn, born 1942, who grew up privileged in Whitefish Bay, Wis., a North Shore suburb of Milwaukee similar in many ways to Karen's Wilmette as it relates to Chicago. I was a staffer at The Milwaukee Sentinel when Dohrn's notoriety was at its peak, with the former Whitefish Bay High School cheerleader on the FBI's Most Wanted list. I remember our coverage of the bombing of the University of Wisconsin Math Research Center, and the 1972 attempt of Milwaukeean Arthur Bremer to assassinate Presidential candidate Gov. George Wallace. Karen makes it clear that she was no Bernardine Dohrn, suggesting that the James Bond acting out antics of the youthful trio of Karen, Chuck and Alex never reached the level of the bomb-making, bank robbing Weather Underground. Not quite at least....


Let's have Andersen's Karen explain it (Page 382):


"Until the last year, I'd never read any of the memoirs published by the old '60s radicals. They were people who'd genuinely believed they were making a revolution, who had set off bombs in government buildings for years and really did go underground for a decade. Now I have read every one and I find them unsatisfactory.


"They are too fondly sentimental about their crazed young selves, coy and opaque about exactly what they did and disingenuous about their motives. They didn't quite regard their crimes as real crimes, and definitely not their madness as madness. For them, 'mistakes were made" has no ironic stink. They mainly blame the Man for their mistakes and still think of themselves as noble veterans of a great and ongoing crusade for justice. They gave sincerity a bad name. I'm not saying every '60s radical was obliged to undergo a political apostasy, or that their careers in education and prison reform and all the rest have been unworthy. The balance in their memoirs between candid explanation and self-justifying rationalization, however, is tipped way, way to far toward the latter. They remind me very much of members of the Bush administration talking about the wars they waged and bungled."


Tour de force is an overused phrase but I think Kurt Andersen has achieved one in "True Believers." The novel is an often humor-laced political thriller that captures the spirit of the times, when the nation and the world was overwhelmed with the space race, assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights marches, cities toward asunder by rioting, and the protests against the war in Vietnam that drove Lyndon Baines Johnson from the White House.

About the Author

Kurt Andersen, born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1954, is the author of the bestselling novels "Heyday" and "Turn of the Century". He has also written for film, television, and the stage. He is host of the Peabody Award–winning public radio show Studio 360 and contributes to Vanity Fair, New York, and Time. Previously he was a columnist for The New Yorker, editor in chief of New York, and co-founder of Spy. Andersen lives in Brooklyn with his wife Anne Kreamer. His website: