An overblown yet oddly sketchy memoir recalling Ayers’s days in the Weather Underground.
A spin-off of the leftist, antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Weather Underground was formed in the late 1960s by a few hundred militant college students who became notorious as bombers after blowing up a policeman’s statue in Chicago and a bathroom in the Pentagon. They also induced violent riots and masterminded Timothy Leary’s prison escape. Members rationalized their terrorism in revolutionary terms. As Ayers tells it, “I was a full-time peace activist . . . our future existence hung in the balance. It fell to us—and we were just kids—to save the world.” Ayers captivates with heartfelt recollections of his friends in the Black Panthers, feminist groups, and Vietnam, attesting to his sincere wish to create a better world. Unfortunately, his passion cripples his credibility; he spends more time divulging emotions than describing his participation in terrorist acts, leaving us to wonder what actions he took and how effective they were. Much of this riveting American history is conveyed in rambling exposition that at its best moments has a Kerouac-like looseness, but more frequently denies significant characters and events the depth they deserve. Ayers’s memories are selective to the point of incomprehensibility. He goes on and on about his affair with “Diana,” later killed during an accidental explosion in a Weather Underground bomb factory, without bothering to mention her last name. (It was Oughton.) When he first meets SDS leader Bernadine Dohrn, she’s got a boyfriend Ayers finds intimidating; the next thing we know Bill and Bernadine are living together, with no explanation of where the boyfriend went. Although his fast-paced chronicle is at times explosive, Ayers too often rushes past intimate details and simply lists events rather than reenacting them in real time.
Younger readers who weren’t around during the Vietnam protest era will still feel like they’re missing something.