Rare is the Jew who doesn’t bring up his or her parents in a therapy session. As the tribe that created psychoanalysis, we may be predisposed to thinking our childhoods were messed up. But few Jews can claim they spent their early years waiting for the homecoming of their famous fugitive father or hanging around bars with folk legend Phil Ochs.
Freedom “Fred” Snyder can. In Joshua Furst’s second novel, “Revolutionaries,”, coming to a bookstore near you April 16, Fred shares his experience growing up the son of Lenny Snyder. Lenny was a clownish activist icon known for his theatrics at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, his American flag shirts and for living a life on the lam after getting collared for trying to sell cocaine. (Any resemblance to Youth International Party figurehead Abbie Hoffman is entirely intentional – but Lenny is also a character in his own right). The book is a masterpiece of narrative voice that wonders at the little regarded casualties of a life with a national profile: Namely, the kids. Fred’s childhood was lonely, confused, and largely free of innocence; or so he says. Approached in his middle age by an oral historian, he begins to wonder about the nature of his father’s choices. Was Lenny a vehicle for the revolution, or was it the other way around?
The Forward spoke with Furst, a longtime contributor to our pages and assistant professor at Columbia’s MFA Writing Program, over the phone to discuss Abbie Hoffman, the tragic life of Phil Ochs and why Jews are so often at the forefront of the revolution.
PJ GRISAR: Your main character’s father, Lenny Snyder, is very much informed by Abbie Hoffman. What started your fascination with him and the Yippies?
JOSHUA FURST: He was still alive when I was a kid. He’d come out of hiding. From how I was looking at the world – a sort of DIY, punk-y alienated by everything, particularly the capitalist system worldview – Hoffman was the only leader of that generation who continued to ask the same questions. He seemed to stay where he was intellectually and not bend to the successes that the movement had achieved. He didn’t give up the big goal because he’d achieved the individual, specific present tense objective. I always felt like that was due in large part to the way that he missed out [by being in hiding for many years] on the slow transition to power that others have been given or had been allowed.
So you had always been fascinated and decided to do a book about a version of him? Was it always from the perspective of his son?
The evolution was a little different. I want to be clear that this is a book about Lenny Snyder, not Abbie Hoffman though Lenny Snyder has some things in common with Abbie Hoffman. Abbie Hoffman aside I felt very betrayed by the leaders of his generation. It’s less that I decided I wanted to write a book about those guys than that I wanted to write a book about Fred. I wanted to write a book about my generation and why we were so cynical and so willing to hide behind irony and so willing to hide behind capitalism or the very worst parts of capitalism and how we’d learned not to fight.
In the book while Snyder stands in for Hoffman, other historical figures — Allen Ginsberg, Rip Torn and of course, in a huge role, Phil Ochs – play themselves. How did you decide which figures to fictionalize and which to give real names to?
The closer the characters are to Fred the less they are historical figures. But I felt it was important to seize on any ways that I could sequester the story in the actual life of the times. I wasn’t trying to create my own vision of the ‘60s; I was trying to respond to the ‘60s, early ‘70s and these figures and what they had been and done.
There was a draft somewhere along the line where I did fictionalize Phil and made him a different figure. But he lost his authority. The real life Phil Ochs was such a tragic guy. As a secondary character in a book about somebody else, to make him a purely fictionalized flamed-out folk singer took some gravity away from him that I felt he needed for his role in the story. And to have an actual historical figure who is truly involved in the lives of these characters and the reality of the time pulled my fictional family into that reality.
Ochs also serves as a credulous foil to Lenny, who ends up becoming cynical and resents Ochs for his continued belief in the movement.
That was Phil’s mistake, wasn’t it? To truly believe in the things that they were fighting for.
Your last novel, “The Sabotage Café,” also included a look into a subculture (a punk one) and navigated a parent-child relationship. What do you think draws you to these kinds of stories?
Subcultures are particularly interesting to me because of the coded languages they create and the openings they create for people to transform themselves into who they might want to be outside of the imposed expectations of society. There’s always a push and pull between the individual and society and always a way in which the individual doesn’t sit comfortably in society. And part of the struggle to me is contained in how someone navigates that relationship.
In terms of parents and children: There’s a lot to say.
Why do you think it was the Jews that were so often at the barricades during the ‘60s and ‘70s? Is there something in our character that leads us to the counterculture and civil rights?
I feel like there were some key historical moments that created situations for, let’s say, non-Orthodox Jews or Jews who had moved into a space where they’re more engaged with the culture of the environment outside of Judaism. What many of the early wave of immigrants in the 1890s, early 1900s kept of Jewish culture was related to Talmudic argument and you can apply that argumentative style to a non-Jewish subject. That led them to conversations about Marxism and the goings on in the larger world. And they also had a sense of otherness and separation from power. It’s not popular at this particular juncture in history to admit that the Jews are also an oppressed people, but at that time they very much felt that. And that informed the next generation of Jews, which is Lenny’s generation. And they were in some ways trying to demand a place for themselves in society. You tie that to the moral thought that gave rise to things like the Ethical Culture movement that are also very much rooted in a secularization of Jewish ideals, and you start to get a growing body of leftist thought that’s directly related to Jewish philosophy.
[Fred’s mother,] Suzy is a child from the next wave of Jewish immigrants [her parents are survivors]. The Holocaust changed the sense of what the world is grounded in for survivors. Many had a kind of nihilism – the sense that nothing has any meaning but also that meaning is necessary. The children are watching their parents and are also much more actively assimilating than the children of that earlier generation of immigrants. At that moment in the ‘60s you get the nexus of the descendants of both of those groups coming into a space where they felt they had the right to speak.
Fred’s really speaking here. His voice is so strong it’s very easy to forget he’s not writing his memoirs, he’s telling his story to a reporter.
Well, in my imagination he’s talking to an oral historian.
Why did you decide to have the device of the oral historian instead of having this be a straight fictional memoir like a “David Copperfield?”
Because he’s a bullshit artist. Fred’s seen what happens when you believe things, what happens when you’re earnest and you assert yourself. It leads to bad things. So he’ll sit down and entertain you and if you’re patient enough you might get him to reveal something about himself. But he’s throwing smokescreens everywhere. He doesn’t feel any agency in relation to changing the world. He doesn’t believe that the world changes. He [is skeptical of] people who try to change because of his experience. All the things that gave his life value, like all the famous people he knew, is just evidence of the hurt. It would make sense that you don’t sit down about write about the hurt.
And how did you go about finding that voice?
I had the voice first. I had those first two sentences (“Call me Fred. I hate Freedom.”) and then I knew that that guy was really angry. I had to keep coming at that voice until I could get past his anger to a place where he was willing to talk at all. I don’t really subscribe to listening to your characters in that kind of mystical way, but I had to push through the defensive wall that that voice implied to a place where it had all these other angles and things about this character’s experience and could come up in any way within the confines of that experience.
Do you think he believes his childhood was as abject as he says it was?
I think he very much thinks that it was as abject as he’s saying. This is his trick that by talking about [the interviewer] he gets to pretend that he’s not talking about himself. That’s why I think he needs to tell this story because he’s figured out “If I talk about them, you’ll see me through what you say about them.”
What do you imagine Fred doing in his adult life?
I have a little intro that I cut from the book at the last minute that’s written by the oral historian, observing who Fred is now. He doesn’t do much. He lives someplace in Upstate New York in a tumbledown little house and, like he says at the beginning, he knows how to restore bathtubs. He’s probably a member of a union. He has his own substance abuse problems probably. He checked out of the culture. I’ve wondered who he would have voted for in the last election. I suspected he may have voted for Bernie but once Bernie was out he probably didn’t vote at all or he ended up voting for Trump.
In your research did you find that that’s how a lot of these kids ended up?
I didn’t research these kids. I’m trying to stay true to what my sense of him was. A corporatized and sanitized, identity politics-oriented leftism is not one that addresses the core economic issues in this country and when you’re entirely alienated you know that. You know that all the people having that conversation are already doing better than you are.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com