The New York Times
Eat the Documentby Dana Spiotta
An ambitious and powerful story about idealism, passion, and sacrifice, Eat the Document shifts between the underground movement of the 1970s and the echoes and consequences of that movement in the 1990s.
A National Book Award finalist, Eat the Document is a riveting portrait of two eras and one of the most provocative and compelling novels of/i>/i>
An ambitious and powerful story about idealism, passion, and sacrifice, Eat the Document shifts between the underground movement of the 1970s and the echoes and consequences of that movement in the 1990s.
A National Book Award finalist, Eat the Document is a riveting portrait of two eras and one of the most provocative and compelling novels of recent years.
The New York Times
The New York Times Book Review
"Infused with subtle wit...singularly powerful and provocative...Spiotta has a wonderful ironic sensibility, juxtaposing '70s fervor with '90s expediency."
The Boston Globe
"Scintillating...Spiotta creates a mesmerizing portrait of radicalism's decline."
The Seattle Times
"Stunning...a glittering book that possesses the staccato ferocity of Joan Didion and the historical resonance and razzle-dazzle language of Don DeLillo."
Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
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Read an Excerpt
It is easy for a life to become unblessed.
Mary, in particular, understood this. Her mistakes and they were legion were not lost on her. She knew all about the undoing of a life: take away, first of all, your people. Your family. Your lover. That was the hardest part of it. Then put yourself somewhere unfamiliar, where (how did it go?) you are a complete unknown. Where you possess nothing. Okay, then this was the strangest part take away your history, every last bit of it.
She discovered, despite what people may imagine, having nothing to lose is a lot like having nothing. (But there was something to lose, even at this point, something huge to lose, and that was why this unknown, homeless state never resembled freedom.)
The unnerving, surprisingly creepy and unpleasantly psychedelic part you lose your name.
Mary finally sat on a bed in a motel room that very first night after she had taken a breathless train ride under darkening skies and through increasingly unfamiliar landscape. Despite her anxiety she still felt lulled by the tracks clicking at intervals beneath the train; an odd calm descended for whole minutes in a row until the train pulled into another station and she waited for someone to come over to her, finger-pointing, some unbending and unsmiling official. In between these moments of near calm and all the other moments, she practiced appearing normal. Only when she tried to move could you notice how shaky she was. That really undid her, her visible unsteadiness. She tried not to move.
Five state borders, and then she was handingover the cash for the room anonymous, cell-like, quiet. She clutched her receipt in her hand, stared at it, September 15, 1972, and thought, This is the first day of it. Room Twelve, the first place of it.
Even then, behind a chain lock in the middle of nowhere, she was double-checking doors and closing curtains. Showers were impossible; she half-expected the door of the bathroom to push in as she stood there unaware and naked. Instead of sleeping she lay on the covers, facing the door, ready to move. Showers and bed, nakedness and sleep she felt certain that was how it would happen, she could visualize it happening. She saw it in slow motion, she saw it silently, and then she saw it quickly, in double time, with crashes and splintered glass. Haven't you seen the photos of Fred Hampton's mattress? She certainly had seen the photos of Fred Hampton's mattress. They'd all seen them. She couldn't remember if the body was still in the bed in the photos, but she definitely remembered the bed itself: half stripped of sheets, the dinge stripe and seam of the mattress exposed and seeped with stains. All of it captured in the lurid black-and-white Weegee style that seemed to underline the blood-soak and the bedclothes in grabbed-at disarray. She imagined the bunching of sheets in the last seconds, perhaps to protect the unblessed person on the bed. Grabbed and bunched not against gunfire, of course, but against his terrible, final nakedness.
"Cheryl," she said aloud. No, never. Orange soda. "Natalie." You had to say them aloud, get your mouth to shape the sound and push breath through it. Every name sounded queer when she did this. "Sylvia." A movie-star name, too fake sounding. Too unusual. People might actually hear it. Notice it, ask about it. "Agnes." Too old. "Mary," she said very quietly. But that was her real name, or her original name. She just needed to say it.
She sat on the edge of the bed, atop a beige chenille bedspread with frays and loose threads, in her terry-cloth bathrobe, which she'd somehow thought to buy when she got her other supplies earlier in the afternoon. She had imagined a bath as bringing some relief, and the sink into the robe afterward seemed important. She did just that, soaked in the tub after wiping it clean. Eyes trained on the open door of the bathroom, and careful not to splash, she strained to determine the origins of every sound she heard. She shaved her legs and scrubbed her hands with a small nailbrush, also purchased that day. She flossed her teeth and brushed her tongue with her new toothbrush. She tended to the usual grooming details with unusual attention: she knew instinctively that these details were very closely tied to keeping her sanity, or her wits, anyway. Otherwise she could just freeze up, on the floor, in her dirty jeans, drooling and sobbing until they came and got her. Dirt was linked to inertia. Cleanliness, particularly personal cleanliness, was an assertion against madness. It was a declaration of control. You might be in the midst of chaos, terrified, but the ritual of your self-tending radiated from you and protected you. That was where Mary figured a lot of people got it wrong. Slovenliness might be rebellious, but it was never liberating. In fact, she felt certain that slovenly and sloppy attention to personal hygiene surrendered you to everything outside you, all the things not of you trying to get in.
The TV on low, she looked but barely watched, hugging her knees toward her. Unpolished clean nails, uniform and smooth. Legs shaven and scented with baby oil, which looked greasy but smelled powdery and familiar. She inhaled deeply, resting her face on her knees and drawing her legs closer. She was a tiny ball of a human, wasn't she? A speck of a being in the middle of a vast, multihighwayed and many-sided country, wasn't she? Full of generic, anonymous and safe places just like this one.
She thought of famous people's names, authors' names, teachers' names, the names she made up when she was eight for her future babies. Abby, Blythe, Valerie. Vita, Tuesday, Naomi. She put on an oversized T-shirt and clean cotton bikini briefs decorated with large pastel pansies, size 4. She thought of girlfriend names and cheerleader names. Names of flowers and women in novels. She ate peanut butter on white bread and drank orange juice directly from the carton. She was ravenous, very unusual for her. She took a large bite and a big swig, the sweet, pulpy taste mixing into the glutinous, sticky mouthful. She didn't finish swallowing before taking another huge bite. Maybe I'll be a fat person in my new life. She started to laugh, and the peanut butter-bread-orange juice clump stuck momentarily in her throat, cutting off her airway. She imagined, indifferently, choking and dying in this motel room. She swallowed and then laughed even harder, out loud. It sounded crazy, her short, sudden laugh against the quiet mono sound of the television. She could hear her breath squeeze in and out of her lungs and throat. She turned up the volume on the television and stared hard at it.
Jim Brown was talking to Dick Cavett. Brown wore a tight white jumpsuit with beige piping and a wide tan leather belt through the high-waisted belt loops. They both sipped something out of oversized mugs, also white, and placed them on a mushroom-shaped white metal table between them. Brown smiled handsomely and kept declaring with exquisite enunciation his respect and support for his friend, the president.
A piece of lined paper in a spiral notebook, a ballpoint pen. Karen Black. Mary Jo Kopechne. Joni Mitchell. Martha Mitchell. Joan Baez. Jane Asher. Joan isn't so bad. Linda McCartney. Joan McCartney. Joan Lennon. Oh, good, sure. Bobby would appreciate that. She almost waited for him to contact her but she knew he would not, not for a while, anyway. At eleven o'clock she turned the channel to watch the news, tried to see if he, or any of them, had been identified or arrested. Jane Fonda, Phoebe Caulfield, Valerie Solanas. She liked these names. Mustn't reference her real name in any way. Brigitte, Hannah, Tricia. Just don't get cute. Lady Bird. Pat. Ha.
"You are no longer Mary from the suburbs. You are Freya from the edge," Bobby had said. They sat cross-legged on a handwoven rug Bobby had bought in Spain. She spent many nights getting high kneeling on that rug; she could examine it endlessly. Moorish Möbius patterns took you in dervish circles back to where you started but done in incongruous, rainy European colors muted greens and yellows next to imperial, regal and regimental looking banners and shieldlike things. The rug wasn't authentic, but whoever made it had worked meticulously to evoke something authentic, studied relics of conquerings, exiles and colonies. It clashed and conflicted the way real things often did. It was the most beautiful thing either of them possessed, and they often sat on it, next to their bed, which was just a mattress on the floor with no frame or even box springs. All the kids she knew slept on the floor; it softened the distinction between their bed and the rest of the world. She felt safer, nearer to the ground. What did it mean, a culture where people sit cross-legged on the floor, on beautiful rugs? Were there horizontal and vertical cultures? Was living closer to the earth free and natural, or was it simply meager? Was it good, or better, or just different for someone?
"And what will you call me?" she had asked, leaning her head against his back. He often wore sleeveless undershirts, very thin and slightly ribbed; when she pressed against him he smelled both tangy and sweet. Pot and incense and sweat.
She tried to conjure him, with her eyes closed, in her midnight bed. She thought Bobby looked exotic, handsome not so much in the total as in the details. The closer in she was, the more attractive he became. His skin had a faint yellow-green undertone that was the opposite of ruddy: skin so smooth under her touch that she could feel every tiny rough spot on her own fingers or lips; skin so clear and fine she could see his blood pulse at wrist and temple and neck. And although she wasn't ever crazy about the random curliness of his long black hair, which grew out rather than down, she adored the silky way the hair slipped through her fingers when she pulled her hand through it, and the tension in his shoulders when she pressed against them, and how in candlelight she would see her white skin her slender hand, say against the dark skin of his broad back, and it would catch her off guard always, the contrast between them. She felt then exquisite and even fragile, which she liked. She wasn't supposed to, but she did. Perhaps because they spent so much time together, and dressed alike and spoke alike even laughed alike it was great to in some palpable way be unalike.
"Will you call me Mary, at least when we are home, in bed?"
"Only Freya. And you have to call me Marco. In these sorts of activities you can't use your real name. Ever. If you want to change your life, first you change your name."
"A nom de guerre? Isn't that sort of ridiculous?"
"All cultures have naming ceremonies. You have a given name, but then you get a chosen name. It's part of a transformation to adulthood. They tell you who you are, and then you decide who you are. It's like getting confirmed, or getting married."
"But I didn't choose that name. You did."
"I'm helping you. The first thing we do is make up a new name. A fighting, fearless name."
"A Bolshevik name?" Mary said, frowning.
"It's a Nordic goddess name. A towering priestess name. A lightning bolt name. A name to live up to."
She closed her eyes and rested against him. "Okay."
"A name that exudes agitprop. These are always two-syllable names that end in a vowel. Freya, Maya, Silda. Marco, Proto, Demo. If you don't like that name, come up with another." They never did use those names except in the press communiqués and on the telephone. Now she was choosing another name, its opposite a hidden, modest, meek name but truly choosing.
The next morning (was it morning?), when she woke after hardly sleeping, she sat down in the one chair, a molded plastic affair in mustard yellow, next to the motel bed, in the dead time between showers and sleep, with nothing to do but indoctrinate herself into her new life. She could not leave until it was done. She wrote it all out on the piece of spiral notebook paper. Her age: twenty-two. Birthplace: Hawthorne, California. Name: Caroline. Hawthorne was just another suburban town in California, which you could bet was more like all the other suburban towns in California than it was different, and it would do just fine even if her favorite band was also from Hawthorne. And Caroline is a pretty girl's name that also happened to be the name of the girl in one of her favorite songs. (Okay, there was no point in being witty about any of this, encoding it or making it coherent in any way, except if it helped her remember. But as Bobby had warned her, if it is legible to you, then it gives you away. But everything, of course, means something. However hermetic and obscure, it can't fail to signify, can it? Unless, of course, she wanted it somehow, however quietly, to be legible and coherent. Unless, of course, she wanted someone, at some time, to figure it out.)
Caroline. Caroline Sherman. Okay?
That first night, Caroline didn't know where Bobby had gone. Or when she would see him again. She knew only to get across state lines as soon as possible. Only then could she pause, anonymous in the great expanse of states between the two coasts, and hole up in a motel room composing her new life. They had agreed on Oregon as her final destination because she wanted to be back on the West Coast. Bobby said he would contact her eventually. Go to Eugene, he said, and when and if things are cool I'll get in touch. I'll find you. Otherwise they had determined a fail-safe plan to meet at a designated spot at the end of next year. But surely they would see each other before then. He'd get in touch when and if things cooled down.
And if, he said.
She fell asleep those first few nights committing the "facts" of her new identity to memory. And for a while it would be impossible not to be confused and self-conscious during even the most mundane exchanges. Do you drink coffee? And she would have to think, Well, I always have, but now, well, maybe I don't. And she would reply, "No, I never touch the stuff." And the extra step of comparing the present with the past would keep her in a constant state of reaction. Until it stopped, later and slowly but she didn't know about that yet, couldn't even imagine it. Yet one day she would have lived her new life so long that the conjuring of the old life would seem like a dream, an act of imagination. Eventually it would almost feel as though it had never happened. This was the way it was supposed to go down. A secret held so long that even you no longer believe it isn't really you. But at this point she had no idea that this could go on indefinitely. She had no idea she would find that her identity was more habit and will than anything more intrinsic.
She had all her supplies. She pulled them one by one out of a brown knapsack and placed them on the bedspread. Blond hair dye. L'Oréal Ash and Sass. Scissors. Cash. About four hundred dollars, all in twenties. This was her whole life, the sum of her past twenty-two years and the path into her future. A spiral notebook, blond hair, scissors, a handful of twenties, a pair of jeans, a black sweater, an oversized T-shirt, a bathrobe and a blue blouse. Three pairs of underwear, three pairs of socks, one pair of brown clogs. Silver earrings, antique, that Bobby gave her on their one-year anniversary. His grandmother's. A watch her parents gave her for high school graduation a quartz Timex, a Lady Sport model with a khaki-colored canvas band. She should discard these, but she couldn't. She had already discarded her phone book. She did that the night before, ripping her name off the front and burying it as deeply as possible in the big garbage bins outside the train station, pushing different pages through each swinging lid as discreetly as she could manage in the state she was in. Right before that she stood in the ladies' room, feeling ill, looking one last time at the phone numbers and addresses of her parents and her few friends. She knew by heart all she needed anyway, still did. That was the first time that expression made sense, by heart. Memorization and memory that was not intellectual or by rote but by heart.
When Bobby and Mary first discussed the day they might have to go underground, it had actually sounded exciting. She could admit that. In case of emergency, you must do the following. The escape plan. Change name, hair color, clothes. Social Security number. Remember the first numbers must match where you say you are from. Don't count on any luck. Count on bad luck. He made her go over all of it. She didn't really understand then that if it happened (and yet they knew it would happen, didn't they?), if all went well, all according to the plan, it would happen in silence and isolation. Unnoticed and unobserved. She would end up alone in an anonymous room somewhere with a pocked chenille bedspread and a watercolor landscape print in the same hues of mustard and green that were everywhere in the room and with only the TV on the broken swivel stand to remind her of the world at large.
By the second night, she had her new identity worked out. She then needed to determine what should happen next not just how to evade detection but how to survive, to sustain herself for however long it would last. (She didn't, at that point, define what "it" really was. She projected a few months into the future and then stopped.) Caroline, a.k.a. Freya, a.k.a. Mary, did not count on luck but took stock of her advantages. She could see only two: One, she was a woman. Two, she was plain.
She was not ugly, she was not pretty. But just that old-fashioned word, plain. If she left the room, or if you tried to recall her to others, or even yourself, the adjectives would be limited not hard to come up with but hardly worth the bother. Thin, yes; neat, yes; hair much more light brown than red, which also made it hard to describe, not so much both-this-and-that as barely-this-and-barely-that; light, milky blue eyes and pinkish white body. Her skin tone gave off a peeled quality that left the line distinguishing lip from face indistinct, her pale eyebrows lost against the nearly same-colored forehead. Bobby once described her as looking like a heroine in a nineteenth-century novel. To her that meant sickly, bland looks that suggested small, prim virtues.
"No." Bobby laughed. "They would have said you have a noble physiognomy."
"A pleasing countenance."
"What does that mean, exactly?"
"Uh, a good personality?" He laughed and tried to kiss her.
"How sweet." She pulled away, frowning at him. He held her arm. She shrugged him off.
She didn't look at him but examined the floor, lips pursed.
"You are so lovely," he continued, his voice softer now. "True, it isn't a loud-volume effect; it is subtle but quite deadly, I assure you."
She turned a little toward him. He was staring at her so intently she looked back at the floor. She could feel herself flush.
"You have a sort of I don't really know how to explain it what you might call an undertow, if that makes any sense. The longer I'm with you, the more I want to be with you. It gets harder and harder to imagine leaving you behind. It's not about enchantment or seduction or anything as light as that. It is more like being held captive. It's powerful and uncomfortable and gets worse all the time." She couldn't hear what he was saying. She just knew that her lover thought she was plain.
But as Caroline she could put these two irrefutable facts together, plain and woman. It meant she could move somewhere new and go to the store or apply for a job and people wouldn't feel threatened or aroused. She knew she could go unnoticed. She could not recall her own face if she wasn't staring in a mirror. This smeary obscurity that had caused her pain her whole life became an asset now, her anonymity her saving attribute. Her looks had finally found their perfect context as a fugitive. Born to it by being chronically forgettable. (Which was also part of how she got in this position in the first place. Walking slowly, half smile on her face, clutching an innocuous purse, or a package, or a suitcase. Would anyone bother to stop such a person?)
Caroline did possess other assets as well. She could cook. She had worked in her father's restaurant her entire youth. She could walk into a kitchen with a nearly bare pantry and create chilis and pastas and stews. This made her eminently employable. Restaurants hired people off the books. No legitimate Social Security number required. No references. No one would suspect this bland, wan woman was anything but harmless and ordinary. Because, despite the circumstances that had brought her here, she knew herself finally to be harmless and ordinary.
By the third evening in the motel she didn't feel nearly as fear-struck. She even had an hour or two of giddy confidence. She was almost ready. Almost.
She imagined in future years there would be time to go over the series of events that led to the one event that inevitably led to the motel room. It felt like that, a whoosh of history, the somersault of dialectic rather than the firm step of will. The weight of centuries of history counterlevered against what, one person's action? Just in the planning they knew where it would lead. Contingencies are never really contingencies but blueprints. Probabilities became certainties. She knew she would comb over how she came to be involved with cells and plans and people who believed in the inevitable and absolute. Someday she would explain her intentions to someone, at least to herself. And the event, which she could not think about, not yet, the event that she could not even name, she referred to in her thoughts as then, or the thing, or it. But surely in years to come she would think about it, over and over again, especially the part where Mary became Freya became Caroline.
She brushed her teeth. She ate more peanut butter and bread. She wished for a joint but settled for a beer bought at the store across the street. She exited briefly the afternoon of the third day, wearing large sunglasses and a scarf. She trembled in the fluorescence of the convenience store and hurried to pick up some juice, some beer, the paper. The Lincoln Journal Star. Front page, lower left quarter, a picture of Bobby Desoto. Just pay and leave. She stumbled back across the highway to her mustard-colored motel room. She read as she walked.
She opened the paper to the inside report and felt the fear come crashing back, making her stumble. She started to cry noisy, hiccuped sobs and gulps as she closed the door behind her, staring at the lines of type. She learned that the group had been identified, although only one had been caught, Tamsin. She was the youngest and weakest. They must have gotten the names from her, just as Bobby suspected they probably would. (Behind her back he used to refer to Tamsin as M.L.C. Most Likely to Crack.) But Tamsin didn't really know the details of the various underground plans. The authorities were looking, but they had few leads. Nevertheless, contact anytime soon with Bobby was definitely out. She already knew that would probably be the case, but she cried anyway.
She drank three beers in a row watching TV shows about regular people. She sniffed as her nose ran. She went over everything again and again. Had she already made mistakes?
Her motel room was outside the train station just south of Lincoln, Nebraska, which was practically the dead center of the country. She wondered she stared at Ironside and then turned the channel to Owen Marshall, and then to a commercial for denture glue if a lot of fugitives headed for the dead center of the country, stopping there to make a plan of where to go next. Maybe this was fugitive central, a magnet.
PoliGrip. Eat like a man.
Polaroid. Land Camera. SX-70. Almost part of you.
D-Con. House and garden spray. Against bugs.
She wondered if her every thought would be predictable, the same things people always thought in these circumstances, and if she would give herself away without even realizing it. She doubted, actually, that anyone else would follow her Nebraska strategy. Logic would say try to get over the border, to Canada or Mexico. Most would move to the perimeter. That was what they would be looking for.
She, Caroline, didn't have siblings, and her parents died in a car wreck years ago. She felt superstitious about writing that down. As if it would curse her poor parents somehow, or undo her younger sister.
For the first couple of years, Caroline wouldn't be able to resist the occasional phone call to her mother. She knew this was dangerous. She knew this was a big, stupid risk. She knew the FBI, COINTELPRO, the police, all of them, expected this and had tapped the phones of all her relatives and friends. If there was anything Bobby had hammered into her, it was the consequences of involving other people. Anyone she told the truth to could be charged with harboring a fugitive. No contact of any kind could occur. She only hoped that somehow her family understood this. That she was protecting them. Caroline would talk herself out of it as many times as she could, and then she would call from a phone booth. She would wait until her father or mother picked up the phone. She would say nothing. She would listen to the sound of her mother's voice saying hello, and then her mother getting annoyed and repeating that word, hello, in an urgent way. Then Caroline would hang up and start crying. Or continue crying, as that had already started when her finger first rotated the dial on the phone. She would go as long as she could and then call again, and swear it was the last time, until a few months went by and she couldn't resist calling once more.
Choose a California Social Security number, start with 568 or 546. The next two digits relate to your age. Always even numbered.
She removed the towel from her wet hair. She opened the tiny frosted window in the bathroom to let the hot, steamy air escape. She took the towel and wiped the mirror clear. In the seconds before it fogged again, she glimpsed her newly blond hair. It was a daffodil yellow blond, not the ash promised on the box. The side-parted, sophisticated and liberated woman on the L'Oréal box. From the Champagne Blonde series. Honestly. But it didn't matter. She wouldn't feel liberated by her blond hair whether it was egg-yolk yellow or a pale, early-summer corn-silk flaxen. She didn't feel any relief in discarding her old look, or in no longer having to be the woman she was. She only felt an unnamed dread that had more to do with loss than capture. What do you discover when you remove all the variables? That you are the sum of your experiences and vital statistics? That you are you no matter what your name or whether people expect different things of you? She wanted to feel the joy of no one urging her to go to graduate school, or to get married, or even to give it all up for the movement. To get to be anyone is a rebirth, isn't it? But she couldn't be anyone, she got to be had to be anyone but who she was. In retreat and in hiding. She looked at herself, and she saw the same whispery, alone person she had been her whole life, more unlikely than ever to feel at home anywhere. And the dyed hair made her complexion more sallow. She looked not monochromatic but subchromatic. A pallid suggestion of a person.
The very last time she would call home was on her mother's birthday, March 9, 1975. Twenty-nine months, three weeks and two days after she first went underground. She called, and her mother answered the phone. She listened as her mother said Hello? and waited, not hanging up, because she couldn't, not just yet, and her mother said, "Mary, is that you? Mary?" with a plaintive, quiet voice. She instantly pushed the receiver button to disconnect, still pressing her ear to the handset. She could hear her breath, feel her heart dropping to her stomach, and her knees actually buckling at the sound of her mother saying her name. To her. She leaned against the phone booth and then felt a contraction and a heave as coffee-tinged bile rose up her throat and back down. She knew then she couldn't call again, ever. Never, ever, never.
She had written it all down, once, on the ripped-out piece of spiral notebook paper. Her name, her history, the members of her family. Where Caroline Sherman had spent every year of her twenty-two years. When she was done, she tore the paper into shreds over the wastebasket. Then she fished the shreds out of the basket and lit them one by one in the yellow glass ashtray. She had it all memorized. She had all the details already in her head if not exactly in her heart.
Copyright © 2006 by Dana Spiotta
Meet the Author
Dana Spiotta is the author of Innocents and Others; Stone Arabia, A National Books Critics Circle Award finalist; and Eat the Document, a finalist for the National Book Award. Spiotta is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rome Prize for Literature. She lives in Syracuse, New York.
- Cherry Valley, New York
- Date of Birth:
- January 15, 1966
- Place of Birth:
- New Jersey
- B.A., The Evergreen State College, 1992
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This is a great example of compelling literary fiction. A great spread of characters- a sullen 15year old, a sad and vague suburban mom, her secret past, a paranoid and hallucinating shop owner, and his slackerish manager who is amused by all the young activists. This is a story about how we come to posses identity and what happens when we shed an old identity for a new one.
I thought that this would be a good book. However, I thought that it was long and slow going. At or about pp 150 is when the book start to move. I think that the story line could have been better written. I could have gone without some of the characters.