By James A. Miller
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 5, 2009
PUSH COMES TO SHOVE
By Wesley Brown
Concord Free Press. 246 pp. Paperback, $0
America now seems light years away from a time when the term "terrorist" was more likely to be applied to American radicals than to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Wesley Brown's latest novel, "Push Comes to Shove," considerably narrows the imaginative gap between those two historical eras.
Muriel Pointer, one of several narrators in this challenging story, is a battle-weary veteran of civil rights campaigns in the South during the mid-1960s. She returns to New York City shorn of the beliefs that had propelled her into the movement: "I was horny with idealism," she admits, "and foolishly believed that throwing my body in the path of injustice was enough to stop it." In 1969, armed with only memories of "our vision of a beloved community before it was beaten out of us," she joins a black activist group called Push Comes to Shove, led by Theodore Sutherland, a charismatic figure "whose normal behavior resembled James Brown in concert." The group's tactics become increasingly provocative, more confrontational with the racial status quo and the police. One night -- in a scene that evokes the 1969 assassination of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton -- the police raid Muriel's house and kill her lover, Walter Armstead, with a shotgun blast to the head. From this moment onward, "Push Comes to Shove" propels its readers into the politically and culturally turbulent world of the American 1960s and '70s.
Brown has assembled an eclectic cast of characters representative of the times, including a Jewish lawyer dedicated to representing political activists; her husband, an African American artist; a white Vietnam War veteran and his companion, both of them active in New York's East Village counterculture; and an African American professor of history named Raymond Bonner, who becomes Muriel's husband. Through Muriel's political activities, all these characters are drawn into the shadowy radical underground in the United States.
Spanning the years 1969 to 1975, these intersecting stories and voices unfold against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Nixon's invasion of Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State. The novel also winds across the United States, from New York to New Mexico and California, with a particularly cataclysmic episode in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Throughout, the characters talk endlessly, drink and smoke dope, make love, quarrel, fight, separate and re-form, testing the boundaries of their racial, sexual and political identities.
The mood of "Push Comes to Shove" is often downbeat, with frequent references to the failed hopes of a generation, such as Raymond's observation: "I'd sensed a change in recent years. The buoyancy capable of lifting possibility beyond skyscraper heights had fallen to earth. Now people moved as though stun-gunned by dreams that had turned into boomerangs, hitting them right between the eyes."
In her post-Push Comes to Shove existence, Muriel begins writing for a left-wing journal, setting herself the task of "putting a human face on individuals whose bombings, kidnappings and plane hijackings seemed without rhyme or reason to most Americans." Brown admirably succeeds in doing the same thing. He is exceptionally well-qualified for it: He went south to work with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1965, joined the Black Panther Party in 1968 and served 18 months in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in the early 1970s for refusing induction into the armed services, before becoming a professor of literature and creative writing at Rutgers University, where he taught for more than two decades. He writes about this milieu with compassion and deep insight.
And there is another way in which his novel evokes the spirit of its times: It is the second book from the Concord Free Press, which publishes novels and gives them away free, with the following injunction: "By taking a copy, you agree to give away money to a local charity, someone who needs it, or a stranger on the street. Where the money goes and how much you give -- that's your call." It's an innovative publishing effort that one-ups Abbie Hoffman's yippie manifesto "Steal This Book."
Miller, professor of English and American Studies and chair of the American Studies Department at George Washington University, is the author of "Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial."