boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
HISTORICAL NOVELS

Foibles, free spirits of a distant age (read: the '70s)

Seeing clothes you still wear -- still remember buying -- being sold in vintage apparel boutiques is one thing. Reading novels set in decades you lived through is another. The '60s? Well, you can claim temporary amnesia there. But the '70s, the '80s? Like it or not, they are history, ancient to many. (A young friend recently asked me about the ''disco era" as though it followed hot on the heels of the Jurassic.) Besides, novels set in your past, even if they don't wound your ego, are often annoying in their own right: all groovy slang and retro appliances.

Elwood Reid, the author of ''D.B.," isn't interested in any of that. Not that he is indifferent to the Vietnam War, the hippie caravan, the psychedelic circus; he can -- and does -- conjure up any one of them in a single paragraph. But he is more interested in the guy who answers a stranger's nod with a shrug ''as if to say he was just getting by and that it was enough that he rose every day to answer the bell, kick back the stool, and tap gloves with what he called his life."

That particular nobody is exchanging looks with D. B Cooper, on the flight that makes Cooper a somebody. Reid's novel opens in midair on Nov. 24, 1971, when Cooper threatens to detonate a bomb unless he is given $200,000 and a parachute. He gets his money, jumps out of the plane over Washington State, and disappears for good.

Reid's imagination takes it from there, filling in Cooper's past, following him to Mexico and finally back to the United States through a country that still seems wide open, welcoming drifters. Without nostalgia, Reid re-creates a freewheeling time when we called it the land, not the homeland, drove a van, not a minivan, and bypassed prescriptions. ''What's in it?" Cooper asks his erstwhile road buddy, considering the spiked Tang. ''Some spay/neuter cat knockout I got from my defrocked veterinarian friend," Lou answers. ''The Dexatrim's to keep the arms and legs moving. Keep up appearances and all that."

But ''D.B." is far more than a Hunter S. Thompson retread. Superb at depicting the rush, Reid is equally good at portraying the stall; the paralysis of suburbia, of the trailer park, ''the air filled with the jabber of daytime television and the distant drone of weed whips and lawn mowers." Cooper escapes to a Mexican version of this monotony until he is forced to retrace his steps in 1984, just when Frank Marshall, the FBI agent who originally worked on Cooper's case, faces retirement.

Resisting an Arizona condo (''all the fake cowboy crap -- the guys from Jersey strutting around in crisp Wranglers"), lusting after the wife of a felon, and slugging vodka over the kitchen sink while his realtor wife sleeps, Frank is lured back to the woods where Cooper vanished by a young agent who is obsessed with the case. The quiet denouement is perfect, changing everything and nothing, just as it should.

If Cooper remains a hero to working stiffs with ''booze-shot eyes," the '60s revolutionaries who formed the Weather Underground are regarded by one narrator in Neil Gordon's ''The Company You Keep" as ''larger than life . . . at least in their capacity for self-delusion . . . spoiled little kids . . . babyish, cruel, and violent."

Gordon's satisfying thriller, now in paperback, tells the Weather story in a series of '60s and '70s flashbacks e-mailed from various characters in 2006 to the teenage daughter of a Weather veteran and fugitive who was forced underground again in 1996 when his identity was discovered. Eventually imprisoned for his part in a 1974 Michigan bank robbery during which a guard was killed, Jason Sinai and his former comrades now ask his estranged daughter to testify at his parole hearing and, in doing so, to betray her mother.

Betrayal, personal and political, is rekindled as different narrators write competing versions of the same events. Who sold out, who was sold out; who hijacked the antiwar movement; who fractured the left; who was the worst parent. For Jason it starts in adolescence, ''figuring out why my parents' long history of leftism that started in Spain had become a compromise, a lie. . . . All the while they carried their candles in midnight vigils, voted for Kennedy, Humphrey, McCarthy, the big machine churned on."

There is loyalty too. ''Total strangers would help us," Jason recalls. ''And later, when the police came . . . not a single, solitary person, ever told them a thing." Like Reid, Gordon curbs his nostalgia as he deftly sketches a United States where you could still disappear.

The adventurers in Margaret Elphinstone's ''Voyageurs" do it all the time, striking out from Canadian trading posts, canoeing uncharted waterways at ''fifty strokes a minute for hours" and carrying ''two ninety-pound bales on their backs at a time." In 1811, while war ferments in America, young Mark Greenhow travels with these French fur traders in search of his sister, Rachel, who has married a colonist but disappeared with the native tribe. ''We seemed to be suspended outside the world," Mark observes as he moves up the Outaouais River to Lake Huron, drawing closer to his sister as the political murk thickens. As we said back in the Jurassic, far out.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives