Revolutionary Roads

Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War BY Deb Olin Unferth. Henry Holt and Co.. Hardcover, 224 pages. $24.

The cover of Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War

Deb Olin Unferth’s new memoir of travel and political unrest doesn’t make you wait long to discover how her sojourn works out. Revolution, which tells how in 1987 she and her boyfriend George left college and the United States to travel to Central America and “join the revolution” (actually, any revolution), begins with a brief chapter entitled “McDonald’s,” the restaurant for which Unferth makes a beeline upon returning to the US. “I was thinking about how I already knew what the food I ordered would look like,” she writes. “I knew what the French fries would look like, what the containers would look like, although I’d never been to that particular McDonald’s. . . . There would be toilet paper in the bathrooms.” In the second chapter, Unferth elaborates a little on a voyage that begins in hopeful naïveté and ends with the happy embrace of the plenitude and uniformity of American fast food:

My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution.
We couldn’t find the first revolution.
The second revolution hired us on and then let us go.
We went to the other revolutions in the area—there were several—but every one we came to let us hang around for a few weeks and then made us leave.
We ran out of money and at last we came home.
I was eighteen. That’s the whole story.

And that really is the whole story. Given the simplicity of this short passage, readers should make note of its particular attributes—the affectlessness, the flattened pitch Unferth uses to summon the innocent mind-set of eighteen-year-old Deb and her slightly older lover, the lightweight but completely encompassing cloak of irony—and decide whether they are their cup of tea. That quotation captures the basic tone of the book, two hundred pages of which require the recurrence of certain episodes and the repetition of certain points. Most crucially, the bulk of the book demands that the reader go along with Unferth in reducing the events that took place in the 1980s in Central America—most particularly in Nicaragua and El Salvador—to a backdrop against which Deb plays Estragon to George’s Vladimir, each peering into his boot or hat for a chimerical “revolution” and, finding nothing, declaring that it is precisely nothing that is to be done.

Deb Olin Unferth in Nicaragua, 1987.
Deb Olin Unferth in Nicaragua, 1987.

Well, not precisely nothing. Deb and George do try to pitch in here and there—helping out at a home for children orphaned by the war in El Salvador (Deb is fired for refusing to wear a brassiere), working in Nicaragua assembling bicycles from kits supplied by the Chinese (the couple is dismissed for ineptitude), and, in a running joke, tape-recording “interviews” with campesinos, priests, government officials, and others whenever they get the chance. These encounters turn the duo into a kind of private StoryCorps, whose sole function seems to be to provide George with a sense of purpose (in the end, the tapes are lost). The most profound discovery Deb makes (other than that capitalism can be even more enchanting than class war) is that she and George don’t especially like being around each other, but since neither of them can envision an alternative under the circumstances, they stick it out until the end of the trip. Revolution’s strongest engagement is with the sensory: It is a memoir of being tired, of being hungry, of being wet, of being cold, of being hot, of having diarrhea, of being bitten by insects.

The casting of this material as a comedy of errors is not without its problems. When each of these unfamiliar physical discomforts afflicts the couple, a specifically American, middle-class kind of innocence is punctured. But since the narrative depiction of the trip is committed to the ineluctable eighteenness of its protagonist—Deb’s underdeveloped ability to see beyond George, herself, and their immediate situation—Unferth only rarely approaches the idea that the inhabitants of these countries have much more at stake than the tourists (“revolutionaries” or not) passing through. She thereby risks trivializing the undeniably historic.

Unferth mostly dodges that bullet. She does acknowledge the essential frivolity of what her younger self was doing. And as the book advances, Deb’s sometimes frustratingly disingenuous perspective gives way to the reflections (and experiences) of the more sophisticated Unferth: “We were walking across their war, juggling. . . . We could go home anytime we liked. The Nicaraguans were stuck.”

Ultimately, Revolution is not about revolution, politics, or idealism at all. It barely deals with the history of revolutionary movements in Central America, or with liberation theology, communism, or US involvement in the internal affairs of the region. It isn’t about George’s (somewhat vaguely presented) evangelical Christianity, or about Deb’s own religious confusion (she is a nonobservant Jew). It isn’t about learning to love, let alone to help, the poor. True, some comments shoehorned into the text seem like editorial attempts at retrofitting the book with a properly memoirish takeaway: “My coming-of-age story, if I had one, would be right here. . . . Somehow I knew—nothing specific, I just knew—I wasn’t who I would be. More of me was coming.” “The only thing that changed as a result of our presence was us.” “Inner revolution is possible.” But Revolution doesn’t really traffic in growth and change—at least not directly arising from the adventure hinted at in its title—any more than it does in revolutionary history. Primarily, Revolution is a book about its own style.

This is a relief, comrades. Radical ideas have only infrequently made for revolutionary prose, as many of the memoirs emerging from the left-wing fringes of the 1960s and ’70s have amply demonstrated; their residual self-righteousness and careful avoidance of self-incrimination make for books that manage to be both turgid and tepid. Unferth, whose previous works include the story collection Minor Robberies (2007) and the novel Vacation (2008), is neither, and while Revolution is not what I would call a groundbreaking exercise in narrative form, it is a gifted and adventurous fiction writer’s subversion of the Overcome/Be Redeemed/Learn/Confess scheme of the contemporary memoir. Unferth’s prose spends a lot of time exploring the surface of things, and often proceeds in unadorned language that moves swiftly from A to B (it’s a fast read). But her impulse is almost invariably to move toward the literary, rather than the documentary, building a rhythm from repetition and litany. She exploits the unreliability of memory and the contradictory nature of the available “facts” to destabilize her narrative and exfoliate the surface of the conventional memoir—the certitude of its various grievances and traumas—in a manner far more radical than anything she could possibly have achieved while in the thick of her adventures. Even when doing something as basic as employing a simile to paint a scene, she becomes fascinated with the device itself: The scene can wait. Writing of one hot and frustrating day, Unferth says, “The sun was like an illness.” She continues the scene, but then returns to the intriguing problem of the sun:

We rode like pebbles in a can on those roads. In Santo Tomas we waited again for hours to get a ride. How many hours are there in a day even? But George was determined to get to Rama. We sat outside and waited. The road stood before us and ran behind us like a thing denied and another discarded. The sun was like another language. The sun was like a shout in the sky. The sun was like the landscape. The sun was alive, like an animal. It was a dull knife. It was a clock, a tunnel, an eye. The sun was a year long. It was like breathing. It was official. It rocked back and forth like a lamp.

Unferth’s application of her imagination to her subject—that orb in the sky—evokes what David Foster Wallace referred to as “the click,” a feeling one gets when reading work that’s firing on all cylinders. In this passage, she moves from simile to the run of more categorical metaphors and then, after time out for a brief and bafflingly apt adjectival descriptive (“It was official”—if we can have “serious” moonlight, why not an “official” sun?), back again. This has nothing to do with revolution, Nicaragua, Unferth, or the sun, for that matter: It’s about the prose. This sort of thing is supposed to “take us out of the story,” to employ the demented jargon of the creative-writing workshop, but ultimately it’s what pulled me into and kept me in the book, and I suspect it was what kept Unferth writing it.

Christopher Sorrentino is the author of Trance (FSG, 2005).