An Historical Novel by Luke Hauser
Reviewed by Bill Dewey
When this 800-page novel about civil disobedience protests came across my desk, I browsed the photo sections, then set it in my "paperweight" stack.
It was the photos that got me to pick it up again. Any novelist could invent a rambling story about a bunch of activists in Berkeley and San Francisco who conspire to change the world, organize civil disobedience protests in which thousands of people are arrested, and spend days or weeks in jail. An imaginative writer might even add sub-plots concerning a "nukecycle," pagan rituals, elaborate graffitti actions, and one activist's obsession with an Air Force base.
But not many novelists could back up their imagination with 200 photographs that hammer home the point - all of this really happened. The novel is built around a literal, blow-by-blow recounting of two years of 1980s direct actions in the Bay Area.
Had it stuck with that, Direct Action might have been this year's must-read action thriller. But Hauser seems bent on compressing a graduate-level textbook within the pages of his novel. Sometimes it works (jail-cell musings on strategy and organizing), other times it doesn't (class analysis during a graffitti expedition?).
The pages turn fastest when the actions are underway. The hapless narrator - a latter-day Hamlet - gropes his way through a dozen civil disobedience protests, ranging from huge anti-nuclear blockades to roving urban affinity-group actions. Along the way he and his compatriots learn their strategic and tactical lessons at the school of hard knocks, emerging sadder but wiser at the end of their odyssey through the depths of the Reagan era.
The story can drag. Do we really need a play-by-play of yet another meeting, or the subtle nuances of a discussion about organizational structure?
What saves the day is the pictures. Hauser has collected over 300 images from the era - photographs, flyers, posters, newspapers - and peppered the novel with graphics. They exert a magnetic pull, drawing you forward during the slower moments toward an action a few pages ahead.
Besides the novel, the book includes a 35-page handbook on how to organize civil disobedience, making it a do-it-yourself protest kit for budding activists.
Sprawling as it is, this book dramatizes the back-story to today's anti-war and globalization protests, and will appeal to activists, organizers, and anyone concerned with social change. If it doesn't provide all the answers, it at least raises the right questions
With a Foreword by Starhawk. 768 pages. 300 illustrations. $9.95. Ages 16-up. Published by GroundWork. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Reprinted with Permission.
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