“My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution,” Deb Olin Unferth writes in her new memoir.
“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 then we came home.
I was eighteen. That’s the whole story.
Unferth is the author of Minor Robberies (2007), a collection of enigmatic, very short stories, and a novel, Vacation (2008), remarkable for the way its peculiar poignancy rubs against its extraordinarily flat affect, like an encysted arrowhead working its way free of a wound. She was 18 in 1987, the peak of the minimalist movement in American fiction led by Raymond Carver, but she didn’t settle among Carver’s innumerable imitators. She lit out for Central America.
Carver had appropriated the bare and spare techniques of Ernest Hemingway’s short fiction and applied it to his dreary deterministic view of the world. A great many of Carver’s younger contemporaries adopted his literary mannerisms with little of the underlying Weltanschauung; the result was a plethora of literary fiction that was nearly content-free. Hemingway’s minimalism is based on the psychological mechanics of repression. An echo of his approach can be detected in a favorite trope of 1980s minimalists: a pattern of reference to dire secrets and hidden wounds these authors didn’t realize they were supposed to have imagined.
Though similarly pared down in style, Unferth’s work doesn’t run on the two-stroke depth-psychology engine. Instead, like the paintings of Gustav Klimt, it elaborates a single flat surface in an intricate way. Her prose has an apparent artlessness, a studied simplicity reminiscent of texts for teaching children to read. The distance she places between her voice and her characters, or herself, as a character in Revolution, does not sound ironic. “I could see a new me looking out through the glass back at myself sitting at Sarah’s, a woman watching a girl who was looking back at the woman—no man, no boyfriend—each just absorbed in her own contemplation of the other.” It’s distance without any affect at all.
Dear Mom and Dad,
I am writing you from Mexico. I’m sorry to tell you in this way, but I’ve left school and am going to help foment the revolution. I am a Christian now and I have been called by God. Due to the layout of the land, we are taking the bus.
Raised in a family of nonobservant Jews in Chicago, the Deb Unferth character—let’s call her “Deb”—feels stranded at the bland Midwestern state university she is inexplicably attending. Then she meets George, her inamorato and guide to revolutionary struggle. She plays Sancho Panza to his Quixote en route to El Salvador—where at the time there were more than windmills to tilt at. Death squads preyed on civilians, and Yanqui agitators were by no means immune, not even those in holy orders. In 1980 four American churchwomen were raped and murdered in El Salvador, and at the time of Unferth’s visit this crime and its authors still enjoyed the impunity that had sanctioned thousands of other deaths and disappearances. Quixotic behavior could get you killed, but Unferth (faithful, perhaps, to her 18-year-old avatar) conveys little awareness of danger. She and George travel by bus to El Salvador, and the militia checkpoints that slow their journey produce a subliminal hum of anxiety, the sense that “This is never going to work.”