Three great loves govern the action of True Believers, the third novel from former New York and Spy editor Kurt Andersen, which offers a story of ’60s children all grown up. As a teenager, Karen Hollander nurtured a crush on a classmate while they were both committing to the counterculture and its ideals; even after she transferred that ardor to her successful legal career, she carried her conviction until her past unexpectedly resurfaced.
The novel presents itself as Karen’s memoir in progress, and she’s a superb narrator, captivating yet slippery. Once a contender for the Supreme Court, Karen outwardly settled for the comforts of southern California and a tenured professorship, but plans to topple all she has built by revealing the reason she withdrew her name. It’s connected to the extreme politics of her high-school and college years, when she and her two best friends, Chuck and Alex, acted out James Bond-style intrigues, and, following their political awakening, replaced their games with actions supporting “the cause,” from chasing Goldwater canvassers from front stoops in her Wilmette hometown to protesting the Vietnam War at the Lincoln Memorial.
Until their involvement turned violent, Karen and her cohorts snobbishly congratulated themselves for being more involved and less self-absorbed than their classmates. Karen’s final great love is the decade that inspired her reckless nostalgia, and though it ended badly, she can’t forget it. Stapling a coming-of-age story to a ’60s backdrop allows writers a store of common furniture for characters to move around, yet for every I Dream Of Jeannie ponytail, an equal and opposite revelation awaits the young radicals of True Believers, as Andersen ruthlessly foregrounds the itemizing of history by making his narrator go through a similar reckoning.
At war with the impulse to hide from the past that caused her to pull her name from Supreme Court contention is Karen’s fear that ultimately, none of it made any difference. The conviction that her radical credentials weren’t enough (rather than too dangerous) colors Karen’s narration of True Believers, even to the present day, as she gamely accompanies her granddaughter to an Occupy-style protest in Miami, but can’t bring herself to leave the hotel. Andersen tracks her inner dilemma at the same feverish pace as when a younger Karen decides to plan her own political actions, moving toward her surprising realization that the stakes that used to seem so high hardly matter to anyone.