Beyond the Barricades: On Deb Olin Unferth

Beyond the Barricades: On Deb Olin Unferth

Beyond the Barricades: On Deb Olin Unferth

Dylan’s Mr. Jones was confused by revolution; the persona of Deb Olin Unferth’s memoir is nonchalant about it.


“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.”

In For Whom the Bell Tolls Hemingway cozies up to revolution by romanticizing it (and not only with those execrable love scenes). Unferth doesn’t. Revolution lacks barricades with dramatic scenes on top. Its explication of ideology is comically passionless: “We were Calvinist-Marxist-Kierkegaardian Christians.” One senses that Deb is sold on George but not so much on the liberation-theology cocktail he has imbibed (“this was all a game for me,” she says at one point), though she can manipulate the jargon as well as he does. She would reliably beat George at Hangman (one of their faintly sinister pastimes) if only George would play by the rules. Dylan’s Mr. Jones was confused by revolution; Deb is nonchalant about it.

* * *

Central American political turmoil is the subject of two remarkable Anglo novels, one by Robert Stone and the other by Denis Johnson. In A Flag for Sunrise (1981), Stone invents an apparently nice Central American state, Compostela, and an obviously nasty one, Tecan; this pair might stand in for Costa Rica and El Salvador. For the most part Stone’s novel is conventionally realistic, though not without a surreal shimmer at the edges. All of Stone’s fiction is what some people now patronizingly call “character-based.” His characters are sculpted, fully dimensional, their psyches deeply realized, and A Flag for Sunrise is concerned with moral choices, or the failure to make them. Converging on a moment of violent upheaval are an old-fashioned priest, a modern young nun, an ambivalent academic who occasionally freelances for the CIA and a speed freak AWOL from the Coast Guard who signs on to a sort of pirate ship, running guns to the revolution. They make what they will of events, according to who they most deeply are. As much as it is a morality play, A Flag for Sunrise is also fully conversant with the political dynamics of the period; the predatory state and its lurid repressions turn out to be underwritten by US interests—not the government per se but the fruit companies.

Johnson’s The Stars at Noon (1986) does not cover so wide a spectrum of the human comedy, as it takes place almost entirely within the mind of “A North American female prostitute-drifter with a press card…which has been revoked.” The unnamed woman is trapped in Nicaragua, a place she believes, literally, to be hell, with all the trimmings. Because the woman is also the narrator, her perspective turns the novel into a lyrical allegory, in which the moral choices that drive Stone’s novel become bargaining chips in an all-or-nothing struggle for the soul. As the woman explains to a companion, “Look, everybody sells everybody out down here. They can’t afford not to, it’s basic, that’s the situation. If you hang on to even one little tiny scruple it’ll be the death of you, I promise. This is Hell, it’s Hell, how many times do you have to be told?”

For all their differences, Stone’s and Johnson’s novels elucidate the sinister quality of US involvement in Central American politics; their protagonists, even the virtuous ones, end up tainted by covert complicity, often in someone’s death. Complicity barely comes up in Revolution, as if Unferth has intentionally overlooked it. Deb’s discovery of the extent to which her idealism is compromised is comparatively minor, though telling. Managua’s luxury hotel is “capitalism incarnate. We used it as shorthand for all that was wrong and greedy in the world. We secretly wanted it and felt guilty for it.” The first thing Deb wants to do when she returns to US soil is to eat at McDonald’s.

Unferth’s depiction of the futility of Deb’s odyssey is devastatingly frank, and by implication applies to all the other revolutionary tourists who made a pilgrimage to Central America—the Internacionalistas, as they were known, though indigenous ironists sometimes called them Sandalistas. At one point Deb and George are denounced by a fellow American for “pretending to be revolutionaries,” and for once not even George has a reply. Their tour of Central America is no different from the treks they made earlier in their relationship up a series of Colorado mountains to add their names to the “I’ve climbed…” lists at the top. In Central America Deb and George do take the risk of recording dozens of interviews with various political figures, but they never bother to listen to the tapes.

Nineteen eighty-seven is the year I did nothing. The year I fought in no war, contributed to no cause, didn’t get shot, jailed or injured…. We didn’t starve, didn’t die, didn’t save anyone either. Didn’t change anyone’s mind for the better, or the worse…. We had absolutely no effect on anything that happened. The only thing that changed as a result of our presence was us.

* * *

At the heart of Revolution is Unferth’s slightly eccentric take on the venerable confusion of the political and the personal. Deb’s wires keep getting crossed between two expectations: revolution will be permanent, leading to utopia, and love will be permanent, leading to paradise. The first expectation is so flimsy that it deserves to be demolished, and Unferth doesn’t flinch from the task. As for love and paradise, thanks to Deb’s hapless dependence on her dangerously delusional partner, some depth of feeling emerges. Deb’s real faith is not in the revolution, or the Christian God (thanks to George) she struggles mightily to comprehend, but in George. Losing faith in George is what really hurts, and what begins to reshape her.

Deb’s revolutionary wandering is devoid of political accomplishment, but it is not without suffering. She doesn’t get wounded or imprisoned or raped, but she and George are constantly robbed; she isn’t disabled by doctrinal rectitude, but she is often afflicted by dysentery, a stomach swollen from malnutrition and insect bites worthy of a horror movie. Unferth’s description of “skyrocket fever, a hundred and six,” that comes “out of nowhere,” is luminous:

I couldn’t remember what the word “yet” meant, something about time sequence, the future or the past? I couldn’t get a grasp on it, grasping the handrail, kneeling, the staircase unsteady, as though it might collapse, as though it were collapsing already (is “already” a “yet”?), a slow-motion fall, and it was at that moment, with the stairs and the rain and the rafters, that the fever hit, the kind that blinds, the hurricane kind, the ten-trumpet, twelve-finger kind that whips you off your feet and makes you babble. It was like losing what makes you a human, like becoming a small, furry creature with a fast-beating heart.

If one can’t attach personhood to the usual experiences (“the Christianity, the running away, the marrying”), how does one become a person? How is the person to be made? These are the central questions of Revolution. “It would turn out to be harder to find myself than I expected because so little of me existed to begin with,” Unferth writes. Yet there are intimations, when Deb is still frolicking with the Internacionalistas south of the border: “nothing specific, I just knew—I wasn’t who I would be. More of me was coming.”

Unferth is mercilessly candid about her unrealized self at 18. About her later avatars she is opaque. The affair with George does not long survive that first ecstatic bite of a Big Mac. Retreating from Deb, George returns south and makes a grounded life for himself, at least for a time, with the “queen of the peasants” he marries in Brazil.

Deb obeys nostalgic compulsions and returns to Central America some thirteen years later, where she meets a good number of tourists lured by the same obscure attraction. Despite Deb’s insistence on the banality of her story (“What could it matter? A young person goes away and comes home. Everyone has that story to tell”), in the late phases of the book the story deepens. The flat, elaborate rendering of her meanderings in 1987 begins to look like a reflection on the surface of a pool, with the mature, self-realized person concealed and quietly swimming beneath the image of her younger self.

Making no case for a new social order, Revolution is not by any means what a revolutionary or political memoir is ordinarily thought to be. It declines to be a conventional love story too; young Deb and young George are too incompletely formed as people for their romance to assume iconic qualities. (Adult Deb’s continuing search for George, around the world but most interestingly in the folds of her own psyche, does have a painful richness of feeling that the rest of the story resolutely refuses to express.) Nor does Revolution distill the essence of the person who wrote it, as some memoirs try to do. The book’s treatment of naïve, 18-year-old Deb is ruthless, but Unferth remains almost completely concealed in swirls of the writer’s cape; we know that such a person exists, but her privacy has been most elegantly protected.

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