The Company You Keep

by Chris Bertram on December 24, 2005

I’ve just finished reading Neil Gordon’s “The Company You Keep”: which I’ve enjoyed and been stimulated by as much as any work of fiction I’ve read in the past year (I’ve barely put it down in the last two days). I won’t post plot spoilers here, but the central drama revolves around a former member of the “Weather Underground”: whose elaborate new identity comes apart in 1996, thereby risking both prison and the loss of his seven-year-old daughter. There are plenty of implausible coincidences in the plot, but Gordon manages to make the whole believable. The central literary conceit of the book is that it is presented as a series of emails from the main protagonists to the seventeen-year-old daughter ten years later. And those emails so do not read like any email anyone has ever written! The main theme of the book is about how trust in friends is more important than abstract principle. Questionable, perhaps, but Gordon puts the case persuasively. There’s also a lot of the spy thriller about the book, and plenty of revolutionary tradecraft that took me back to reading Victor Serge’s “What Every Revolutionary Should Know About State Repression”: and to the whole mystique of the “professional revolutionary” as once cultivated by the groupuscules. (Though it isn’t mentioned in the book, Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” seemed to play in my head as the appropriate sountrack as I read, together with a few others from Blood on the Tracks.)

I’d love to give every Crooked Timber contributor and reader a copy of this book for Christmas, but I’m afraid you’ll have to buy your own.



Tom T. 12.24.05 at 9:51 am

I haven’t read Gordon’s book, but from your description it sounds like those who enjoy it might also appreciate Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland. It’s in the same vein, but perhaps a bit more light-hearted.


Jim Johnson 12.24.05 at 12:21 pm

A book that brings to mind the best Dylan album ever is worth tracking down.


Henry 12.24.05 at 1:33 pm

As the father of a good friend said to him thirty or so years ago: “Well at least you’re a professional revolutionary!”


Ian 12.25.05 at 1:25 am

As a CT reader who already has a copy of The Company You Keep, I agree it’s a superb political thriller-cum-historical study: milieu totally convincing, main character fascinating & credible, plot riveting. Not sure, though, that “the main theme of the book is about how trust in friends is more important than abstract principle.” I read the theme as (huge simplification): there are decent individuals at all points on the political spectrum from left radical to establishment Republican (Gordon doesn’t give us any examples further to the right than that); and their politics are guided by the politics of those who raise and befriend them – the company you keep – rather than by abstract principle. It’s questionable whether Gordon himself is totally persuaded of this, even if he wants to be: his characters on the left, committed or disillusioned, are drawn far more fully and lovingly than those on the right. Depends whether you see it as a book about the left, or a book about political belief.

Those implausible coincidences: yes, Gordon piles on way, way too many, and often they’re not even necessary to the plot. His previous novel, The Gunrunner’s Daughter – equally intelligent and readable – has the same problem. It looks almost compulsive, as if Gordon keeps saying, “I know you won’t swallow this, but I’m gonna put it in and still write a fine novel!


CharleyCarp 12.25.05 at 3:30 pm

Jim Johnson, it’s too late to be suggesting Xmas presents, but if you’re out exchanging gifts, you might think about Simple Twist of Fate.

Disclaimer: I’m related to one of the authors.


Buce 12.26.05 at 10:47 am

I’m too indolent to Google it, but you bring to mind EM Forster’s remark about how if he had to choose between betraying his country and betraying his friend he would…

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