I’ve had very good luck with nonfiction so far this year, including Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne, Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story, Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed, and now Deb Olin Unferth’s book Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War. I loved every moment of this all-too-short book (a very fast 200 pages). It’s exactly what a memoir should be: entertaining, thoughtful, smart, funny, self-reflective, and even self-critical, with exactly the right kind of self-absorption, the kind that manages to say interesting things about the writer but also about a whole lot more. It tells the story of how during her freshman year in college in the 1980s Unferth met and fell in love with George, an unusual young man, a Christian with counter-cultural leanings. The two of them dropped out of school to go to Central America and join the revolutions fomenting there.
The book is extremely well-written. I’ve been trying to put into words exactly what I like about its style, and it’s been hard. Somehow Unferth manages to say a lot more than just what’s on the page. Her sentences are short and simple, with hardly a word wasted. She’s great at moving towards a larger meaning, hinting at it, and then leaving you to take the final leap. I usually prefer a more maximalist, wordy style, but this version of minimalism worked for me because it managed to say more than it seemed to. The book is written in short chapters, sometimes only a page long, each telling a story or vignette or exploring an idea. It holds together as a coherent whole, but the short chapters give it a fractured feeling that somehow makes everything more believable. It’s not a seamless narrative, but instead the chapters offer glimpses of or angles into the story. It’s a method that doesn’t promise to fit everything together neatly, because such a thing is impossible.
The story is not told in chronological order. In fact, she starts by telling us the ending, how she and her boyfriend returned from their travels in Central America and all she wanted to do was go to McDonald’s. Then, in chapter 2, she tells the whole story in just a few lines. The next 199 pages or so merely fill in the details:
My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution.
We couldn’t find the first revolution.
The second revolution hired us on and then let us go.
We went to the other revolutions in the area — there were several — but every one we came to let us hang around for a few weeks and then made us leave.
We ran out of money and at last we came home.
I was eighteen. That’s the whole story.
From there, the narrative moves back to the beginning of the trip in Mexico, when Unferth and her boyfriend find themselves in a shantytown outside Mexico City and panic when they get lost. From there, there is steady progress through the various countries they visited, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, to give the story some narrative momentum, but interspersed among these present-action sections are flashbacks to Unferth’s college days when she first met George and converted to Christianity, and also to her younger years with her family. The narrative also moves forward now and then to tell about what happened after the trip was over, about the difficulty she had readjusting to life in the U.S. and about what happened to her relationship with George. All this back and forth movement works. There’s the potential for it to be confusing, but it never is, except in the way our memories can sometimes be confusing; instead, the structure evokes the sense of what it is like for Unferth to look back on that time of her life, to remember all the details and think about their larger significance.
Let me close by giving you a short chapter in its entirety to give you a sense of her style:
Years later I heard that the Sandinistas referred to us as Sandalistas, not Internacionalistas. We wore Birkenstocks, right? A bunch of hippies, ha, ha. I don’t recall hearing that during the revolution, only after. I believe the Nicaraguans called us Sandalistas behind our backs.
That’s okay. I can take (or be) a joke.
In fact I did wear sandals. I brought on the trip my smartest pair, not Birkenstocks, but a strappy affair. It turned out the revolution was going to involve a lot of walking. A week into Mexico my feet were blistered and my sandals were broken. I bought a new pair for five dollars and I wore those until they broke too. I bought another pair and another. Finally George said I couldn’t keep buying new pairs. I had to make the pair I had last. At that point I had a pair that cost about three dollars. The sandals stretched after a few days and fell off my feet as I walked. I took some string and tied them to my feet. When the string broke, I tied knots in it and tied my sandals back on and kept walking until the soles wore through to the ground. Why didn’t I bring a pair of damn Birkenstocks? I thought. But I’d wanted to look nice, you know, cute for the revolution.
This passage captures so much: Unferth’s mildly ironic, bemused attitude toward herself, her total misunderstanding as an 18-year-old of what she was in for on this trip, her boyfriend’s controlling tendencies, and the way we get a double-perspective on the book’s events: both the eighteen-year-old view and the older woman’s commentary on that view.