Will this book have the same visceral effect on other readers as it does on me? Perhaps not to the same extent.
Altamont Augie is, in the first place, a book about my own coming of age years—the late ʹ60s. The main characters are about four years older than me.
On top of that, the bulk of the action takes place on my home turf—Minneapolis and its environs. Mostly the University of Minnesota, where I did not attend, but visited often. I could easily have bumped elbows with these people. The main female character comes from the suburb of Robbinsdale, my present home.
The somewhat confusing title of the book is a double reference. “Altamont” means the Altamont Free Concert at Altamont Speedway in northern California in 1969, where four people died in the terminal delirium of the Woodstock Era. One of those dead remains unidentified to this day—a young man who climbed a fence and jumped into an aqueduct where he drowned.
“Altamont Augie” is the speculative name hung on that unfortunate man by the novel’s fictional narrator, a young Californian named Caleb Levy. It’s a reference to Saul Bellow’s novel, The Adventures of Augie March.
Caleb Levy is a young conservative, the son of a single mother who was a radical in the ʹ60s, but abandoned the Left. Caleb works as an editor on film trailers, and is currently doing one for a re-release of “Gimme Shelter,” the famous rock documentary on the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour which ended at Altamont. Caleb’s idea is to do a documentary of his own on “Augie’s” death. He will try to identify him, but if he can’t do that he’ll invent a story for him which will exemplify the saga of radicalism in the ʹ60s. (Which is precisely what the real author, Richard Barager, is doing in this book.)
But while examining photos of the concert crowd, Caleb finds a picture of a young man who exactly matches “Augie’s” description and clothing. That young man is in the company of a beautiful young woman whom Caleb immediately recognizes as his own mother.
So he asks her about it, and gets the true story, the telling of which makes up the rest of the novel. (If that seems a little far-fetched, I agree. That central coincidence seems to me one of the book’s weaknesses.)
“Augie’s” real name is David Noble. He was an orphan and the product of a string of foster homes. He was a student with Jackie Lundquist, Caleb’s mother, at the University of Minnesota. They met as freshmen, and felt a profound attraction. But Jackie was getting increasingly involved in the anti-war movement (and dating one of its Minnesota leaders, Kyle Levy, on the side). When he’s finally had enough of the protests, David enlists in the Marines and goes to Vietnam. There follows a harrowing account of the battles at Khe Sanh, in which we see David’s devotion to his fellow soldiers, his firm belief in the cause, and his growing frustration with the conduct of the war by the government.
Meanwhile Jackie is at Kyle’s side as he rises in the ranks of the Students for a Democratic Society. We see them participate in the Democratic Convention protests in Chicago, and feel her disgust at the behavior of the Black Panthers, with whom Kyle is trying to forge a political alliance.
When David returns to the university, he and Jackie date again (monogamy is not one of her values), but their political differences seem insurmountable. A final attempt at reconciliation leads to Altamont and tragedy.
I read the book with fascination. I would go so far as to say I inhabited it (though that may be a personal reaction). It is not, I think, the great novel the author hoped it would be (what novel is?), but it is very good, and a salutary, revisionist account of a part of our history whose accepted narrative begs for a revisiting. The dialogues sometimes have the flavor of textbook arguments, and Barager sometimes tells when he ought to show. But by and large the book works very well.
One problem I had with it (aside from the unquestioning acceptance of “free love” on both David’s and Jackie’s parts, but hey, those were the times) was their relationship itself, which according to the author’s own statements (in an interview I can’t locate now) is central to the whole story. In spite of political differences, David and Jackie love each other, and we are meant to believe they could have found a way to make it work. I’m not sure I buy that. We’re assured that he’s a great lover, and she’s very sexy and beautiful, but is that enough to make long-term love possible between two people who seem to have nothing else in common?
Also, the final reveal, which I think was supposed to be a surprise, was obvious to me miles off.
Still, as I read I bought it all. Altamont Augie is an excellent first novel, and a story long overdue.
Not for kids. Cautions for language, violence and sex.
And drugs and rock ʹn roll.
Lars Walker is the author of several fantasy novels, the latest of which is West Oversea.