I wanted so badly to love True Believers. I’ve liked Kurt Andersen since the old Spy days, and I adored Heyday, so my expectations were high. I guess True Believers is a near miss. It has an intriguing premise, but the main characters were weak and I felt the entire narrative was grasping at straws to prove that Boomers are still worthy of our interest and continue to make revolutionary contributions even as they reach their Medicare years. It’s cool to know what LARPing is or to have innovative positions on creating peace in the Middle–East, but the fault in this saga is that staying relevant isn’t heading out on a bus to protest a G20 summit with your granddaughter, it’s owning one’s beliefs and staying true to deep convictions, even as they evolve over a lifetime—being a true believer, not a role-player.
Karen Hollander acts as the central catalyst in True Believers and is, for me, the essential reason that the story just doesn’t hang together. Karen is writing her memoirs—she tells of growing up in Chicago, a child of the Sixties and blossoming anti-war activist; she graduates from Radcliffe and becomes a lawyer, in the early years as a victim’s advocate and later as a high-powered corporate attorney. After retiring from practice and becoming a law professor in LA she is offered a nomination to the Supreme Court, which she declines. She declines because of a secret in her past—an event that miraculously was never made public—which Karen is now ready to share.
As young teens, Karen and her best friends, Alex and Chuck are huge fans of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Together the begin to act out “missions” in which they role-play characters and plots from the novels. This sets the stage for a dramatic secret mission they will plan together, causing tragic consequences for one of them, but barely inconveniencing the others, who go on to become accomplished, influential and uber-wealthy members of 21st century society.
The story weaves back and forth between the past and the near future of tomorrow. Karen’s back story is credible, but the present-day Karen seems a bit too much of a chilled-out entertainer. It just doesn’t feel true to me that a woman who is in serious contention for a Supreme Court nomination would be so casual about everything and everyone in her life. Karen’s concern that this hidden bombshell is going to explode in her face once she has exposed herself and her accomplices in her memoirs comes across as pretty farcical. She has managed to evade detection for decades, so telling all now just seems self-serving and publicity-seeking, not to mention highly detrimental to the others. I get that Andersen wants Karen to seem idiosyncratic and distinct from your typical middle-aged grandma, but it’s overplayed to the point where there is no point.
Strangely, my take-away from the novel was one of affirmation that good breeding and education can provide insulation and protection for those who would plot to do harm to the political system, whether from within it or from without. It’s probably not what Andersen intended, but in today’s political climate it does feel timely and appropriate. The casualness with which Karen Hollander shrugs off her complicity in an illegal plot, simply because she realized the error of her ways before it was too late becomes an apt metaphor for today’s “I was before it, before I was against it” political mindset. That she is able to continue to live her life on her own terms is a testament that terrorists are easy to create and being a true believer is more often a small matter of convenience than a true confidence of conviction.