Lily Meyer | Longreads | May 2019 | 12 minutes (3,115 words)
Catonsville, Maryland, is a quiet suburb of Baltimore, a leafy, American Dream-looking town where, in May 1968, a group of nine Catholic protestors led by pacifist priest Daniel Berrigan staged one of the most famous protests of the Vietnam War. As Berrigan describes it in America Is Hard to Find, a shaggy collection of letters and musings that functions roughly as his autobiography, “nine of us invaded the draft board at Catonsville, Maryland, extracted some 350 draft files and burned them in a parking lot nearby with homemade napalm.” Why? Because “it was better to burn papers than to burn children.”
The novelist Kathleen Alcott takes both the title and the spirit of her third book, America Was Hard to Find, from Berrigan. Alcott’s previous novels, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets and Infinite Home, are both elegant, contemporary stories set in extremely contained worlds. America Was Hard to Find, in contrast, stretches its limbs across two decades and two continents, plus the moon. It’s more structured than its namesake, but remains digressive and expansive, following a left-wing radical named Fay Fern and her loved ones across time and space. This includes outer space; Alcott’s history deviates very slightly from ours, and in her world, the first man on the moon was not Neil Armstrong but the fictional Vincent Kahn, Fay’s onetime lover and the father of her only child.
Vincent and Fay work as foils, as do Fay and her son, Wright. Through their shifting and overlapping perspectives, Alcott offers her own anti-war observation of Cold War America. She takes the political questions Berrigan lays out in America Is Hard to Find — what are the ethical limits of protest? What are the ethical limits of technology? Will citizens burning papers prevent a government from burning children? — and enacts them in slow, stylish, keenly observed prose.
The elegance of Alcott’s writing poses an interesting contrast to her heroine’s inner life. Fay is both beautiful and privileged, born to a world of teal velvet chairs and monogrammed calfskin luggage. As young women, Fay and her sister abandon their parents to run a bar in the Mojave Desert, where Fay meets Vincent, then an Air Force pilot. Fay and Vincent fall in love through the Mojave landscape. They spend all their time together on hikes or in airplanes — which happens in part because Vincent is married and Fay lives with her sister, but in part because the only pleasures they have in common are nature and each other.
Fay cannot step away from her privilege … trying to make herself ugly — at one point, she plucks out her eyelashes — while Alcott insists that every paragraph in the novel be beautiful.
Vincent is a true observer, highly attuned to the natural world. Later, this proves to be less true of Fay, but while she’s with Vincent, she seems to love the land around her. Alcott does, too. She reserves some of her best prose for the Mojave Desert and for Angeles National Forest: one night before dusk, “the colors, imperiled, flare up in protest,” and later, the desert goes “the color of fruit about to turn.” Fay delights in these colors, and in her own body. She takes clear, uncomplicated pleasure in sex with Vincent, and in the simpler acts of washing glasses, scooping ice, moving around in her somehow-flattering overalls.
But after Wright is born, Fay moves away from pleasure. She seems to take a secular vow of poverty, though she understands, to a certain extent, that her poverty will always be false. Fay cannot step away from her privilege, or from her beauty. Her desire for plainness will always be at odds with both her background and with the novel itself. The loveliness of Alcott’s writing stands in contrast to Fay’s austerity. At times, the two tug against each other, Fay trying to make herself ugly — at one point, she plucks out her eyelashes — while Alcott insists that every paragraph in the novel be beautiful.
Alcott dramatizes this tension in smaller, more explicit ways as Fay tries to reduce her life to its essentials. Reading a description of Fay trying to hide her beauty beneath loose linen clothes, I thought of a line in an essay Alcott wrote for Elle in 2018: “Clothing was the first way I defined myself in my small Northern California town, hoping to signal to the rest of my life that I was ready to walk into it.” Starting with the overalls, Fay uses clothing to signal that she wants to walk out of her life. Instead, her clothes become a badge of her hypocrisy.
This is especially acute when Fay lives in Ecuador, where she spends much of her twenties and where “[what] is said about her, not often with warmth, is that her dress is poor but her teeth are rich.” She works as an English teacher, and when her students visit her home, they are “confused to find domestic conditions equal to or worse than their own, and she ignored the question on their faces. What did it mean about a person if she could afford a new dress, a floor that was not dirt, but refused it, and did that make her more trustworthy or less?”
Alcott frequently poses questions like this, but almost never answers them directly. More often, she answers herself later on, in ways elliptical enough to slide into the reader’s subconscious unnoticed. She never declares that Fay’s patched dress makes her less trustworthy than a new one would have. Instead, she tells the reader that “Fay loved to hear herself listen.” Fay loves performing solidarity and empathy. The latter becomes her tragic flaw. As she gets older, she gets fully sucked into her own capacity to empathize. Her love of listening turns into a form of blindness: once somebody starts talking to her, she can’t question the merits of what they have to say. Ultimately, this leads her back to the United States and into Shelter, a Weather Underground-like organization that swallows Fay whole.
The chapter in Father Berrigan’s memoir that, to my eye, holds up best in the present day is his “Letter to the Weathermen.” Like most of the book’s longer chapters, the letter reads like a sermon, which at first conceals its sharp critical thinking. “Letter to the Weathermen” opens with several pages of praise, solidarity, and Che Guevara comparisons — all very Fay Fern, until the letter switches direction. Berrigan is not writing to compliment the Weather Underground, but to jolt them to their senses. “No principle is worth the sacrifice of a single human being,” Berrigan writes. “At various stages of the [anti-war] movement some have acted as if almost the opposite were true, as people got purer and purer. More and more people have been kicked out for less and less reason. At one remote period of the past, the result of such thinking was … wars of extinction. At another time it was Hitler; he wanted a ton of purity too.”
Alcott seems to have taken this reminder to heart. As Fay gets ideologically purer, she becomes an agent of increasing violence, both symbolic and real. Vincent, too, starts pure and gets purer, though in service to a different ideal of purity than Fay. Fay wants to be a hero. Vincent, though he becomes an official American hero, wants only to behold. He’s a Transcendentalist in a flight suit, hoping like Emerson to “become a transparent eyeball.”
With the exception of Fay, Vincent relates to other people by watching them. He thinks of his girlfriend and wife “as though he’d known them in different times in his life, Fay and Elise. To meet Fay he arrived with a head full of facts and anecdotes, with plans for an ideal viewing of the eclipse or a rock-polishing kit for the limestone and citrine they’d found hiking. To come home to his wife was to step into another kind of attention, passive, absolute.” After Fay leaves the Mojave, never telling Vincent she’s pregnant, Vincent abandons his facts-and-anecdotes self. He comes to think of his relationship with Fay as a deviation from his true nature, and one he will never repeat.
Her love of listening turns into a form of blindness: once somebody starts talking to her, she can’t question the merits of what they have to say.
Once Vincent enters NASA training, he finds himself not only watching, but watched. Life photographers follow the future astronauts everywhere, and NASA orders them to play along, to be art-directed. Vincent’s fellow astronauts host theme parties, which Vincent hates, “but they were required — that his image there be captured.” The night Vincent’s best friend, Sam Bisson, gets assigned to the Apollo 1 mission, he calls Vincent to say that “Life wanted to come over … What if they all got together, perhaps some grilling and swimming? He was not allowed any answer but yes.” Vincent plays along, but after Bisson dies in a training accident, Vincent reasserts himself as a watcher. He demands to be placed on the incident review board, where he “[takes] notes on every minute, pausing only to take a pencil sharpener from a corduroy case, asking any piece of information he didn’t like to be repeated.” He torments himself with knowledge. The Apollo 11 mission — landing on the moon — is his reward.
Fay might ask, with Berrigan, whether a moon landing was worth the sacrifice of Sam Bisson’s life. Throughout the novel, she doubts the worth of the space program, hating its displays of technological power. When Vincent’s NASA colleagues — though not Vincent himself — tour Ecuador, Fay takes the bus to a protest in Quito. Her young son, Wright, watches in confusion as Fay and the other protestors greet the astronauts with signs saying “WE ARE NOT DISTRACTED BY YOUR SPECTACLE and HOW MANY CHILDREN WILL DIE ON THIS PLANET WHILE YOU COLONIZE ANOTHER?”
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To Vincent, questions about the politics of the space program are both immaterial and incomprehensible. Even his grief for Bisson does not affect his longing for knowledge — which, when he gets to space, turns out to overlap with a longing for beauty. Space makes Vincent “sinfully happy, left him as quiet as he’d always wanted to be.” He loves looking out the Apollo 11 window, and Alcott brings her full aesthetic gifts to bear on that love. She combines space shuttle procedure with sheer delight in the darkness out the window, and at the “moon [hanging] in the black, a boon and a study of grays.” Walking on the moon, Vincent looks at Earth and decides, “It was the real misfortune of the people on Earth, he thought — they had made their lives somewhere they had never really seen.
But Vincent has to return to his home planet, which proves to be a place he has also never really seen. In the Air Force, he could hide from others. In NASA training, he had to be photographed, but there was no expectation that he interact with the public. As a celebrity astronaut, this changes. He has to go on tour, meet dignitaries, and face audiences, including audiences full of protestors. Here as at the Quito protest, Vincent’s story brushes past Fay’s. A few years earlier, she would have picketed his tour, but by this point, she’s in Shelter, planting bombs in post offices while Vincent stands on stage, staring blankly at protestors whose signs warn, “THEY ALSO DIE WHO STAND AND WATCH.” The pressure to react is too much for Vincent, the watcher. He shuts down. Soon after, he leaves the public eye for good.
Halfway through America Was Hard to Find, both Fay and Vincent are living in isolation. Vincent is hiding in Ohio, trying to pretend he was never famous; Fay is traveling from safe house to safe house, an increasingly scarred Wright in tow. They lead what Berrigan, in one letter from hiding, describes as “an obscure twilight existence, neither prison nor freedom, somewhere between crime and punishment.” This is no life for a child, and yet Fay never considers sending Wright to his father or grandparents. Instead, she brings him along, treating him like a comrade, or a partner. She talks to him as if he were an adult, expecting him to fully comprehend the idea that public bombings will awaken her fellow Americans to the wrongness of the Vietnam War. By ten, Wright has come to the opposite conclusion. “Why bomb if bombing is what they’re doing?” he asks. “[It’s] like saying… That we’re not any smarter. That we couldn’t come up with anything better.”
As a result, Wright loses faith in his mother. When he gets old enough to comprehend what his childhood might have been without Shelter, he begins to stop loving her. In her own eyes, Fay is a hero. In her son’s eyes, she is a stumbling, unintentional villain. She stands between him and an education, him and a home. At eleven, Wright sneaks into a school and spends two hours in class “refashioned by happiness, his scalp prickling by what [the teacher] taught them, the beauty and freedom of thoughts that weren’t his.” For the first time, the reader sees him as his father’s son, motivated by learning beyond all else.
Fay’s disappearance into Shelter, with its enforced non-monogamy and mass shaming sessions called Group Criticism, is a crime against herself, as well as against Wright. In contrast, Vincent’s disappearance into himself reads like a curse. After he finds solitude in space, he is condemned to solitude on Earth. His life in Ohio is made solely of “the small acts of discipline that had once punctuated it, the main events blotted out. He washed his car once a week, made his next appointment with the barber as he was paying for the last.” He learns nothing, sees nothing. He interacts with no one but his family. Like Fay, Vincent has been driven underground — but he drove himself there. By the novel’s midpoint, questions buzz around him like flies: What does he have to show for his solitude? What does he have to show for his time in space? Why can’t he re-enter the world?
As the world starts to feel smaller and more fragile, artists of all stripes have begun to depict us as test subjects running through a walled-in maze.
Meanwhile, Fay exits the book, in a scene too surprising and important to describe here. Once she’s gone, Wright comes into his narrative own. Where his mother was Vincent’s foil, Wright is his unknown father’s double. (The doubling is literal as well as structural: so many people tell Wright he looks like Vincent Kahn that eventually Wright just decides the astronaut must be his father.) Both men love knowledge above humanity. Both move through the world in silences that are both self-imposed and filled with longing. Wright floats around the country, barely talking, writing Vincent letters when he’s drunk. Vincent never opens his mail, though. Mostly, he just paces his house, “knocking wood when he passed it, cabinets or tables, for luck in what, he didn’t know.”
For a while, Wright has the luck Vincent wants. He washes up in early-’80s San Francisco, where a kind co-worker named Braden guides him into the city’s gay world. When Wright’s friends begin getting sick, though, he shuts down. He can observe others’ reactions, how it becomes “a necessary defense, to treat [death] like gossip,” but Wright can’t discuss death at all. He can’t bring himself to get tested until Braden drags him to a clinic, and when Braden begins attending protests and writing to Congress, Wright can’t manage that, either.
To the reader, and to Wright, the reason is clear. The only public mourning he’s ever seen was his mother mourning the victims of the Vietnam War, and that led only to violence, loss, and chaos — proof that Berrigan, in his “Letter to the Weathermen,” was right. Wright hates all efforts at purity. He dreads turning into his mother, but instead, he shuts down like his father. Braden is furious with him, and when he demands an explanation for Wright’s seeming apathy, Wright is unable even to speak. He’s too afraid that if he starts explaining, “he would never stop. It would have to be a part of anything he ever said. He did not believe that there was enough of him that he could add his voice to an angry cause and not give himself over to it, not become that sound.” Wright’s fear pushes him so deeply into his memories of Shelter, and of Fay, that he cannot find his way out. Having watched his mother abandon her boundaries, Wright protects his at all costs.
To the extent that this is a choice, it is not the right one. Wright’s friendships do not recover from his inability to protest, which he presents as a refusal. Wright doesn’t recover, either. Instead, he drifts, detached from his world and from himself. By this point, the novel feels atomized, as if its characters and story were dissolving. The sensation is both frustrating and apt. It’s also very painful. Alcott keeps her writing very close to Wright’s perspective, so the reader observes from within as Wright disappoints the first friend, and first community, he’s ever had.
Alcott does not offer full redemption to any of her three protagonists. Nor does she offer complete answers to her readers. She could easily have presented AIDS activism as a correct middle way: successful, radical, non-violent protest designed to save marginalized lives. Instead, she skates away from suggesting any one way to resist, or to behave. As a result, America Was Hard to Find is a messier, grayer novel than, for example, Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, whose protagonist derives deep comfort and meaning from his gradual engagement with ACT UP in 1980s Chicago. In America Was Hard to Find, those things are fleeting. What lasts is America itself, and the ethical trouble inherent in living in a nation powerful enough to destroy another, or to send a man to the moon.
Berrigan lays out these problems plainly, as a sermon writer can and a fiction writer cannot. “Americans have not only been alienated from world spiritual developments by runaway technology,” he writes, “they have been a vast alienating force in most of the western world.” To Berrigan, this will never change until America itself changes.
Fay and Vincent mirror this. Both are entirely alien to themselves. Vincent’s space-age Transcendentalism removes him from the vast world that he loves. Fay’s striving for peace wounds her son and makes her a murderer. Like their country, both Vincent and Fay are unable to face the damage they cause. They cannot look within. Fay can’t empathize with herself, and Vincent can’t empathize at all. Both are dangerous, and both prevent progress. Outward change would be possible only if inward change were achieved.
But does Alcott think inward change is possible? America Was Hard to Find seems to present a world in which no matter how far we range, we’re each uniquely contained in our own histories, our own set of previous decisions. Fay will always have those rich-girl teeth, and the privileged past that goes with them. Given the novel’s slight alternate history, combined with the way it seems to function as a trial run of the philosophical dilemmas in an out-of-print political manifesto, America Was Hard to Find feels close in spirit to recent pop culture hits like Westworld or The Good Place that focus on closed-world ethical experiments and the idea of an eternal return to the same set of choices. Maybe it’s a sign of the times that as the world starts to feel smaller and more fragile, artists of all stripes have begun to depict us as test subjects running through a walled-in maze, where choice is illusory. Like Vincent, no matter how far we roam — even to the moon — we are constrained by a set of ethical decisions we have made or will make; we are “not allowed any answer but yes.”
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Lily Meyer is a regular reviewer for NPR Books, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Atlantic, Electric Literature, Tin House, the New Yorker and more. She studied creative writing at Brown University and the University of East Anglia. She won the Sewanee Review’s First Annual Fiction Contest, judged by Danielle Evans, and is a two-time grant recipient from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
Editor: Dana Snitzky