Kathleen Alcott’s novel “When America Was Hard to Find” (the title comes from a poem made during the Vietnam war by Father Daniel Berrigan) is a tough, gritty novel that’s both riveting in plot and brilliantly written. Two sisters from a very affluent family have fled their controlled, controlling, upper-middle class background of privilege and suburban Republican cliches to escape to the Southwest desert, where the two open and run a scuzzy bar. Many of the patrons of this bar are flight pilots from a nearby air force base. The younger sister, Fay Fern, who’s mostly the narrator/protagonist of this novel, has a brief affair with one of those pilots, Vincent Kahn, who will later be the first astronaut to walk on the moon. (Alcott’s astronaut is something of a composite). Alcott’s descriptions of this affair remind me of Hemingway’s writing; the emphasis is mostly on the physical/sexual attraction between these two flawed people (he’s married). Although Fern’s only 19, the intensity of their affair may well remind the reader of the passion between Paul Newman and Patricia Neal in the film “Hud”.
These sisters are tough and fascinating and angry. Fay’s pregnancy with Kahn’s child is never revealed to him; he’s long gone to Florida for astronaut training, and the two never meet again. Fay, with her baby son Wright, moves into the sixties radical underground after moving to Ecuador with her son–Alcott’s sense of how people got radicalized in the sixties is astute and brilliantly rendered in her minimalist style (which often reminds me of Joan Didion’s). Fay looks for/creates community during her time in Ecuador, where she also meets an American Vietnam war soldier on the lam: another wildly passionate affair ensures (son Wright becoming increasingly aware of his mother’s sexuality; this soldier will be one of quite a few radical men Fay gets involved with who very briefly become father figures manque for Wright. And although Fay returns to her childhood home for awhile so that Wright has some domestic stability, her break with middle class life becomes total and she drags Wright from commune to commune, from”safe house” to “safe house” as she’s increasingly on the lam. Alcott’s writing throughout these seemingly endless radical meeting places continues in its very spare, minimalist style, so that it’s actually more, rather than less, powerful. There’s often no food, and certainly no heat, no structure to Wright’s days (his brief appearance in school , where he’s shown to be brilliant—his mother probably is, too– are moving and poignant and terribly sad; these radicals have to keep moving. Wright overhears the “reeducation” of his mother and the other radicals–our Vietnam deserter is still part of the same underground, based loosely upon The Weather Underground of the late sixties. Wright has no life of his own, no friends, no playtime, nothing.
When the novel moves to Wright as the narrator in a series of letters to his real father (he’s gotten wind of this through excellent plot devices), we’re almost in a different writing style on Alcott’s part: what appeals so much in this novel isn’t just the plot, which is riveting, but in Alcott’s subtle changes of writing style, depending upon who the narrator is. When Wright writes, Alcott switches to the almost redemptive style of Reynolds Price, America’s greatest Southern writer since Faulkner, O’Conner, and Peter Taylor. And Wright becomes increasingly hostile to his mother and sick of being dragged to cheap motels and running; he’s by this point an adolescent. Alcott then moves the almost adult Wright to San Francisco, where he comes out as gay, and Alcott creates Wright’s first community, that of other young gay men right before the AIDS epidemic hits; Wright has his first friends, and goes on a kind of sexual rampage, trying to connect physically, if not emotionally, with men in that city. The time spent with his roommate/occasional sexual partner is hugely moving, emotionally raw. (I wondered if Alcott tried to connect Wright’s over-intimate mother with Wright’s sexuality; if so, it’s an old-fashioned Freudian concept).
Wright’s eventual final trip to Florida for his mother’s last radical act leads to his first and only meeting with his biological father, a totally emotionally shut down man who’s done absolutely nothing since he walked on the moon, for decades; he’s back in small town Ohio, living near his mother. How these two meet (and don’t connect) is part of the great tragedy of this novel, and Alcott’s writing itself may well be the narrative by this point. The character of Wright is utterly fascinating , Alcott’s sense of an emotionally abused but brilliant young man one of the finest in contemporary literature.
“America Was Hard to Find” is bleak, but it’s tough and brilliantly conceived and written. Alcott doesn’t paper over emotional injury and she presents an ugly side of the radical sixties while making it persuasive and almost inevitable in Fay’s case. In that sense, it’s also a cautionary tale, indicating how ideologies of the times can wreak so much havoc in the lives of incidental players. The reader who may hope either that Fay and Fern will remeet or that Wright will have some redemptive meeting with his father will be bitterly disappointed: Alcott’s a realist, and her incredibly powerful novel will take the reader on many journeys that lead only to destruction, death, and emotional dissociation, a novel in which anger burns into fires and no one gets off with any hope. It’s utterly brilliant.