The Slippery Ideal of American Freedom: Joshua Furst Interviewed by Vince Passaro

A novel about childhood memories of a radical milieu and what it tells us about our times.

Revolutionaries

The first characteristic that struck me about Joshua Furst’s Revolutionaries (Knopf) is that the book, rare these days, feels so necessary; not just necessary to you or me or Everyman, like some wise book on nutrition and mindfulness and shit, but in a deeper artistic challenge, the book plainly has been necessary to the author: which is to say, it had to be written. It is a rare quality in these days of battalions of professional writers getting on with their all-too professional careers. Such books burn on the page, and as I round the corner of six decades and start my seventh, necessity is the most important criterion.

Revolutionaries is about the past only in a superficial sense; not so much any kind of historical record but instead an exploration, with a complex set of purposes, of how the past has left us. It’s a Jeremiad decrying American cynicism and betrayal and disappointment; a harrowing kind of investigation into the absolute agony of the child sacrificed to the delusions and ambitions of a narcissistic, albeit heroic, parent. Fred, the narrator of Revolutionaries, is broken and knows he’s broken in just the ways that it seems whole swaths of our population are broken, irrevocably and tragically. Pass the opiates and the basketful of ignorance and bad ideas. Beneath that of course, in the electric energy of its language, as in traditional tragedy, Revolutionaries offers us the form of redemption that art offers, and that remains available in our stories, our literature: it is a book about telling.

—Vince Passaro

 

Vince PassaroWas Philip Roth an influence? I kept hearing him in this book.

Joshua FurstTo the degree that Roth is an influence on everything I write, sure. Reading Roth—particularly Portnoy’s Complaint, My Life as a Man, and Sabbath’s Theater—taught me an immense amount about how to modulate the syntax of a sentence so as to infuse the prose with something approximating raw lived emotion. And like Portnoy, Revolutionaries is a “spoken” text directed at an off-stage interlocutor. Ensuring that the prose felt alive and like it existed in time, was essential to the book.

A more direct and conscious influence on this project, though, was E.L. Doctorow’s Book of Daniel.

VPI can see that. Your book, like Doctorow’s, tells the story of a man’s remembrance of his childhood in a radical milieu. And though yours takes place in the late 60s and early 70s, it feels throughout as if it is directing its skepticism, its ire, and its sense of desolation at who and where we are now culturally speaking, and as a country.

JFFreedom Snyder is speaking from today’s perspective, and looking back on the 1960s and 1970s through the prism of all the ways things have changed in the United States. He may not draw explicit causal links between the events of that time and the changes that have occurred in the country, especially on the left, since then, but if the book works the way I hope it does, the reader will draw these links. It’s there by implication, in Fred’s tone and attitude and the way he speaks directly to the reader. In one late draft, I included a fake introduction, framing Fred’s monologue from the point of view of the Millennial journalist I imagined had prompted Fred to tell his story, the hope being that this would more explicitly nudge the reader toward holding our contemporary moment in mind while Fred told his tale, but I cut it at the last minute. I’m thinking now that I might ask my publisher to put it back in for the paperback. 

VPYou’re reminding me that I have some other questions about Fred’s life now. Where does he live? What is his daily life like? Does he ever get laid? Will he ever find love? The reader, trained by the realist novel, wishes to see Fred’s world pushed outward in time, to before and after, to get a sense of his fate. Should we not? Are these pointless questions?

JFThese are absolutely fair questions. They’re questions I had to ask myself throughout the writing. Until I knew the answers to them, unequivocally, with the exactitude of detail that good fiction always contains, the book didn’t work because without those details, Fred’s psychology, and by extension, his attitude toward the events he describes and the present-tense conflict he’s working through, the struggle that gives the telling of the tale its charge, didn’t have the complexity it needed to sustain itself.

VPThe reader can only intuit a few of the answers though. It hasn’t seemed necessary for you to put any of that back story or side story in the book.

JFWell, some of them are in that introduction I cut. I didn’t want Fred’s present life to be part of the narrative. I wanted it to be the ground from which the narrative grew. The question for me was, how much of that detail about Fred’s present life did the book need to contain? Or put another way, what was the relationship between Fred and the reader and could I ask the reader to do this work on his or her own? I decided that I could.

If Fred’s talking to “you,” then I’ve placed the reader in the room with Fred, cast the reader in the role of the journalist/oral-historian who’s getting his monologue down on tape. And Fred wouldn’t tell you all these things about himself so the book couldn’t tell them to you either. If it works right, the moments of direct address that come and go throughout the book—along with the little things Fred inadvertently lets slip about himself—do all the work the reader needs in order to imagine him into our present space and time.

Joshua Furst

Photo by Michael Lionstar.

VPIs Fred ruined? I guess I’m asking, since “ruin” is a great force in novels of the past, when ruin was irremediable, and since it’s mostly a lost notion now. Couldn’t he publish an as told-to memoir of his father, make the talk show circuit, sell the documentary rights and clean himself up? Of course, he wouldn’t.

JF Right. He wouldn’t do that. Because he’s ruined. He’d rather just go get drunk at the local roadhouse. Also, it would be a betrayal. However much he might resent his father, he still holds onto some sense of his father’s ideals. He’d never let himself be turned into another clown in the sideshow of the nostalgia circus. Especially since that nostalgia—in and of itself—distorts and makes a mockery of everything his father had been trying to achieve.

VPI love “roadhouse.” It’s so out-of-town. The part of upstate that one doesn’t wish to call “the country.” What was his father trying to achieve? 

JFFreedom.VPFreedom, yes. A theme. In what’s becoming a much-noted if not yet famous opening line, Fred, originally named “Freedom” by his parents, says, Ishmael-like, “Call me Fred. I hate Freedom.” At the superficial level he means he hates his name, obviously, both the kitsch of it and the ridiculous burden of it. But what else does he mean? Or do you mean? What is the hated freedom here? The bogus American freedom, Operation Freedom to Crush Everyone type usage? The very costly sense of personal freedom without responsibility that is fought for and somewhat achieved by Fred’s father, the counter-culture hero Lenny Snyder? Is he talking about the pure bullshit aspect of “freedom” or the scarier notion of actual freedom? 

JFI don’t know if I have a good answer to that. I never really tried to qualify it. I don’t think Fred cares one way or the other about the jingoistic militarized way the word is used. He’d see through that in a second and get bored of it. I was interested in the impossible quest that the slippery American ideal of freedom, however you define it, provokes. He was talking about the scarier notion. Actual freedom, the anarchic freedom of which Fred himself is a casualty. There’s an irony there, too, though, because he also loves this freedom, loves his father’s vision of this freedom, which is of course one of the primary reasons he hates it.

I’m glad, by the way, that you brought up Ishmael. I spent a lot of time thinking about Moby Dick while writing this book. How Fred, in a very Ishmael-like manner, endures, rides along with and in the aftermath, narrates his father’s Ahab-like obsession with freedom. In my mind, it became a kind of elastic metaphor for the Left in general, that reaching for a better world that seems always an inch past your grasp, or that when you do almost catch it, changes shape and falls through your fingers.

VPBut does Lenny Snyder actually believe in this freedom? Would you say in the end that he was a hero or a charlatan? And why?

JFHe’s not a charlatan. He’s not a hero either. Well, maybe he could be a hero to someone who didn’t grow up needing the attention and nurture he was incapable of giving. Lenny is too insecure and narcissistic, too demolished by mental illness to give Fred the room to see him the way others do. But he absolutely, entirely, believes in this freedom. What was it Abbie Hoffman said when he was asked “What’s your price [for calling off the Festival of Love he was planning in Chicago to coincide with the Democratic Convention]?” He said, “My life.” Lenny feels that way too. He’s fighting for a world in which a person like him has a chance at survival.

VPThe New York City of Fred’s childhood, and particularly the East Village of that era, is a ravaged place, a destroyed place, and Fred roams it almost as a feral child. Or, “roams it as an almost-feral child” might be more correct. Do you miss that place? 

JFIt’s dangerous to romanticize the grit of New York in the 1970s. I wasn’t there. I caught the tail end of the hard times in the city, the late 1980s. There was still a desperation to New York at that time, still a charge to the streets, still a sense that a great many people from a great many clashing cultural points of view were going to demand the little space they needed and they didn’t really care what you thought of how they lived. What I miss is the sense that nobody was watching. That and the cheap rent, which allowed people who might otherwise have to tie themselves to the wage economy to choose to do something more interesting than just becoming productive members of society. And those for whom it wasn’t a choice, those who were congenitally incapable of being productive members of society, they could almost survive. You could fuck up your life and still keep on kicking. New York now is in a lot of ways a harder place than it was then. More genteel, maybe, shinier, but crueler.

VPWhat happened to all those poor people?

JFGood question. Does anybody really know the answer? They got Giulianied, and then they got Bloomberged. Those who managed to stay, because they had a rent-controlled apartment or whatever, had to learn to make themselves invisible. They must still be somewhere. But you have to at least pretend you’ve got money now. Nothing scares the tourists away like poverty. 

VPAs you go about your days, do you hold out any hope of recovering from the viciousness and attrition of these days we live in? 

JFHope? No. I have no hope. I wish I did. Until very recently, I thought I did. Those days are gone. Something new will come after Trump, but it won’t be a better thing. It’ll just be a different thing. A different group of self-serving people asking the wrong questions, pandering to people they don’t really care to help, filling the air with, maybe, prettier lies while they go about making themselves and their friends and their corporate partners richer and you poorer. Is it any wonder half the country is committing slow suicide by opioid?

VPIt’s not a wonder, no. I’ve never wondered. It seems pretty plain. If you had to pick one statistic that captures our moment it is that unlike every other advanced nation on the planet, our life expectancies are going down. Not among the rich of course. But Fred will likely live a shorter life than he might have, had things gone differently.

JFI’m surprised Fred made it this far. If I can speak for him—and really, if I can’t, who can?—he’s surprised too. There’s some kind of wonder still at work in him, some continued desire to touch the flame. 

Vince Passaro’s criticism, essays, and short fiction have appeared in many national magazines and literary journals. His first book, Violence, Nudity, Adult Content: A Novel, was published by Simon and Schuster in 2002. He is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and is near completion of his second novel.

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