Reviewed by Bob Sommer
(Originally published in the Spring 2009 print issue of Rain Taxi Review of Books, this review appears here on-line for the first time.)
The first edition of Bill Ayers’ Fugitive Days had about as untimely a release as a book by someone who participated in planting a bomb inside the Pentagon could have: September 10, 2001. The following morning, a feature article about Ayers appeared in the New York Times under the stark headline, “No Regrets for a Love of Explosives.” Ayers would soon refute the article, but few New Yorkers spent much time with the papers that morning. Whatever benefit of the doubt readers might have given this compelling memoir vaporized in the day’s events. The Times book review of Sept. 30, 2001, typified much of the commentary that followed: “In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that killed thousands of people in Lower Manhattan and the Pentagon, readers will find this playacting with violence very difficult to forgive.”
From the wingnuts on the right, to left-leaning publications like Slate and The Nation, to the scores of comments at Amazon.com, the single question that most readers ask is whether Ayers expressed remorse for his role in the Weather Underground, which is the political and literary equivalent of judging a gymnast solely on whether she “sticks” the landing. Many assume that everything he did was morally wrong. During last year’s election, Ayers was downright radioactive; few in either party doubted his guilt, only the extent of Barack Obama’s connection to him. But any marketing wizard will tell you that bad publicity is better than no publicity, so the publisher took advantage of the unwanted attention, releasing Fugitive Days in paperback the day after the election, with a new subtitle, a new afterword by Ayers, and perhaps new hope for a fresh hearing.
This is an extraordinary story told by a writer of exceptional skill, a tour through a world that few people know, rendered sensitively, candidly, and often with a self-deprecating wit that Ayers turns on himself and his group with surgical skill. The book’s effectiveness, too, resides in an easy narrative flow that draws on the traditions of picaresque and bildungsroman novels. It is a story of Ayers’s kinship with many activists of that time. It is also a love story, rooted in Ayers’s grief for the loss of Diana Oughton (who died in the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion in 1970) and for Bernadine Dohrn, with whom he lived underground and eventually married.
The book’s first sentence—“Memory is a motherfucker”—evokes the well-known opening line of Homer’s Odyssey—“Speak, memory”—with a self-effacing irony that pervades the narrative. Set in italics throughout the book, chorus-like asides question memory’s trustworthiness: “Memory is feeling, not fact, ghosts and fears that haunt us, floating desires and falsifying dreams more powerful and more compelling than hard reality will ever be.” Some claim that Ayers camouflages his own evasions behind selective memory and fictionalized scenes, but it’s not only his memory that he questions, it’s ours—any who would render easy judgment, whose politicized views of the past prevent them from understanding history. “Memory is a mortuary, a dead space” he writes. “Worse, memory can become the black slate monument hiding the bodies, silencing the sounds of longing, the chords of warning.”
Ayers’s prose has life. He shows great sensitivity to language, engaging in meta-commentary about his own narrative and how language arbitrates our political discourse: “Metaphors matter…. we function on the metaphors we ourselves fashion….Metaphors set us in motion.” His strong, lively imagery serves him well to recreate the stakes of that discourse:
There is a certain eloquence to bombs, a poetry and a pattern from a safe distance. The rhythm of B-52s dropping bombs over Viet Nam, a deceptive calm at 40,000 feet as the doors ease open and millennial eggs are delivered on the green canopy below, the relentless thud of indiscriminate destruction and death without pause on the ground. Nothing subtle or syncopated. Not a happy rhythm.On the receiving end of those bombs:
Three million Vietnamese lives were extinguished. Dig up Florida and throw it into the ocean. Annihilate Chicago or London or Bonn. Three million—each with a mother and a father, a distinct name, a mind and a body and a spirit….Bodies torn apart, blown away, smudged out, lost forever. Their names obliterated.Ayers is candid and often witty. He questions his own judgment and that of his comrades as events and the apparent futility of peaceful efforts to end the war carry them forward until they find themselves trapped in their own logic:
Ideology became an appealing alternative in so many ways … ideology cloaked itself in confidence….I didn’t know yet how domesticating and cruel and stupid ideology could become, or the inevitable dependency it would foster in all of us.The Weather Underground did not target people, a trademark of terrorist organizations like the I.R.A. and al Qaeda, and the few bombings it undertook were measured responses to what it considered to be acts of terror by the U.S. government, such as the Kent State shootings and the bombing of Cambodia. Weather took great care to avoid loss of life. The only casualties for which it was responsible were three of its own. Many who then denounced the Freedom Riders as troublemakers and Daniel Ellsberg, who disclosed the Pentagon Papers, as a traitor now recognize their courage. Most Americans prefer to think they’d be among the mere 116 raging Bostonians who threw tea into the harbor rather than among the 20 percent of Bostonians who owned slaves. The Weather Underground has been more difficult to appropriate, especially in a post-9/11 world, but the question remains: how much longer would the Viet Nam War have continued without the efforts of those, including Ayers, who finally made American policies impossible to ignore?