Two 1970s activists spend decades on the run in Spiotta’s antihero odyssey.
With her second novel, Spiotta (Lightning Field, 2001) shows what riches can be gleaned from an approach that could at first blush seem overly mannered. Her protagonists, Bobby DeSoto and Mary Whittaker, appear only briefly as their true selves—passionate radicals in the Weather Underground vein, second-tier behind the likes of Bill Ayres and Bernadine Dohrn—and then mostly only at the very end, in a bitter coda that reveals how their activism took a tragic turn. At the start of the book, Mary is already in hiding, under instructions from Bobby to choose a new identity. Spiotta follows Mary through the years as she moves from one community to the next, the heat always on her back, a kind and conscientious woman just a couple loaves of bread shy of being a full-on earth mother. Alternating chapters are set in the late ’90s, when Bobby (now known as Nash) works at an alternative Seattle bookstore and organizes protest groups in the back room. Bobby is the story’s brain, a sharp intellect chipping away at the corporate-government edifice, dreaming of being a heroic artist working on “your lifelong project, monument, statement. Your unyielding testament to, uh . . . well, unyielding.” Mary, then, is the heart—the kind but saddened eternal vagabond. It’s an unwelcome gender cliché in a book mostly void of such things. Spiotta fills in the spaces between the two fugitives with a wealth of detail and scintillating secondary characters, elucidating the vast gulf between the alternative cultures of the ’70s and ’90s, as well as the elements that bind them.
Fiction as documentary, a coruscating, heartrending fable of struggle and loss.