I’ve read many novels about the Sixties, and my own experience has made me feel that Neil Gordon got the Sixties right, like no novelist has. He vividly shows the times, he explains why people acted as they did. His characters (who have widely varying viewpoints), come across as real people with complex motives. His characters make mistakes, but I sympathized with them even then.
The plot of The Company You Keep is propulsive. Its form is epistolary – the book (except an epilogue) consists of emails from a half-dozen people to the daughter of the main character. A reader might think this could be flat, but it’s not. After I got hooked, which happened fast, I couldn’t put the book down.
The Vietnam War drove many young people to rebel; the more they rebelled, the more the government cracked down on their protests. Literally, as almost happened to me. Out of frustration from seeing the war and the killing continue, some kids formed Weatherman and took more drastic steps. Gordon understands the context of war and repression in which those drastic actions were taken.
Weatherman did not stop the war, and they may have inadvertently contributed to the backlash that has stymied progressive values since. But in the present time of the novel, twenty-five years later, the characters still hold the values that compelled them to oppose the war and to fight for justice. For me, the way Gordon shows us both the characters’ critical distance from the Sixties and also faithfulness to that time, is one of the most compelling aspects of the book.
He shows that the mindset of young Americans was different in the Sixties. The Vietnam War came at a time of greater innocence, and rising prosperity and hope. When the government lied about the war (even though President Johnson knew early on that the war was futile), the phoniness of the American Dream was exposed and the anger grew.
Gordon ignored the non-political counterculture, but everyone writing about the Sixties seems to focus either on the political or on the cultural exclusively. (With the exception of To The Other Side, my first novel.)
Gordon got exactly right some of my feelings about that time. For example: “Some of the biggest hearts and best minds of the times put everything they believed into (the resistance).” And …
“It was the best dream we ever had. … That the corporate machine, the government machine, the war machine … could be turned off. That the real rights of real people could come before money. … In every possible way – race, war, the environment – we were right. The government has rolled over that dream every day since the Sixties. … If this country had made the central ideas of the Port Huron Statement – antiwar, antiracism, anti-imperialism – the law of the land, we’d be living in a safe, just, prosperous society. All we ever asked them to do was to practice the fundamental principles of constitutional democracy, like they always said they would. And that they wouldn’t, it’s so sad I can’t tell you.”
The narrator of Gordon’s sequel, You’re A Big Girl Now, is the grown young woman who received the emails in The Company You Keep. In the second book, Gordon gives us even more context: the radical protest of a generation further back (the grandparents of the narrator). This narrator realizes the failures of both eras of protest. Though she is viewing those eras through negative feelings about her father, her evolving understanding of the motivations of both generations enables her to change from cynicism (because nothing will change politically in the U.S.), to accepting that it’s still worth protesting against the ongoing betrayals of justice and privacy and peace.
The second book rounds off Gordon’s view of how Americans can engage with politics, and it reaches into the spiritual, in a way that I found affecting.