When I see documentaries or read books about the 1960s, I occasionally can’t help but ponder whether the radicals of the period, such as Abbie Hoffman or Bernadine Dohrn, ever wondered what America would be like today had the change they advocated come to pass. They face the problem all of us do — no one knows what might have been had fate or choice led us down a different path. But what would you do if you believed that conditions were similar enough that it’s possible to take another stab at change that was unsuccessful?
That is the underlying premise of James Wallace Birch’s Discontents as an individual hopes to vicariously effect the change he hoped for nearly 50 years ago. Birch sets the novel in the framework of a letter he received this summer from a high school friend, Emory Walden, who disappeared in January 2011. Walden, a political dissident who acted largely through a blog and graffiti art, asked Birch to publish his story of what happened to him. Birch also uses the conceit of Walden’s insistence that the story not be edited by mainstream publishers to explain why the book is available only as an ebook.
Walden, a name apparently aimed at invoking some of the themes of Henry David Thoreau’s book, returned home to the District of Columbia area from a scrounging life in Europe. Somewhat to his surprise, his blog of political thoughts developed a cult-like following in the activist community. Finding a job at a restaurant, Walden meets Fletcher Spivey, who recently sold a marketing firm his father co-founded that Spivey built into a Fortune 500 company. But Spivey sacrificed his ideals to achieve that success. Coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, Spivey’s presence at many seminal events, from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream’ speech to the 1968 Democratic National Convention to Woodstock, renders him almost an avatar of the period. He became convinced of the necessity of radical change to reform the country but ultimately yielded to what he perceived to be a family obligation.
Now retired and aging, Spivey is nagged by regret, and even shame, over abandoning his beliefs and becoming part and parcel of the economic system he railed against. But he believes current political and economic conditions are such that the level of discontent and dissent can be ignited. He believes Walden’s words and art can be the match that starts a revolutionary fire so offers to support Walden so he can focus on catalyzing radical change. To keep Walden safe from authorities as he builds and seeks to inspire his following, Spivey even gets Walden a fake identity. Along the way, though, Walden becomes convinced that the plan has been infiltrated and that things are not quite as they seem.
Overall, Birch tells the story in readable, well-crafted and creditable prose. He also does a good job summarizing the perspective of those who are among the discontented and makes Walden a fairly well-formed character as he deals with both his personal life and the burden Spivey’s assignment poses. But Discontents still shows signs it is a self-published ebook. Aside from repeated typos (perhaps due to conversion alone), Birch sporadically lapses into sentences and phrases that feel a bit too embroidered. The bigger problem is the sense of incongruity the book creates in providing essentially two denouements.
Although one twist is certainly within the contemplation of the main story, the other seems incompatible with the picture most of the book draws of Walden. Birch provides some basis that might explain the latter but the core of the Walden character seems unaffected or unchanged overall. Logical issues also appear. For example, Walden’s picture is published in the paper with his false name after he is arrested by D.C. police and the police say in the article they are looking for Walden. Yet the police never make the connection between the two names despite the fact a number of non-movement individuals — including a member of the police force — would recognize the picture as Walden.
No one can say for sure that the editorial staff of an established publishing house would have avoided those problems. And certainly an argument can be made that these plot developments force a reader to think more closely about fate and free will and the relationship between what we believe and life-changing turning points. Still, the handful of anomalies push the mystery or thriller aspect of Discontents more toward the forefront and encumber an interesting concept and generally well-told story.
We live selective lives and construct our own realities. It is how we survive the perniciousness of our time.
James Wallace Birch, Discontents