True Believers: A Novel

True Believers: A Novel

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by Kurt Andersen

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The Washington Post • San Francisco Chronicle

In True Believers, Kurt Andersen—the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed author of Heyday and Turn of the Century—delivers his most powerful and moving novel yet. Dazzling in its wit and …  See more details below


The Washington Post • San Francisco Chronicle

In True Believers, Kurt Andersen—the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed author of Heyday and Turn of the Century—delivers his most powerful and moving novel yet. Dazzling in its wit and effervescent insight, this kaleidoscopic tour de force of cultural observation and seductive storytelling alternates between the present and the 1960s—and indelibly captures the enduring impact of that time on the ways we live now.

Karen Hollander is a celebrated attorney who recently removed herself from consideration for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. Her reasons have their roots in 1968—an episode she’s managed to keep secret for more than forty years. Now, with the imminent publication of her memoir, she’s about to let the world in on that shocking secret—as soon as she can track down the answers to a few crucial last questions.

As junior-high-school kids back in the early sixties, Karen and her two best friends, Chuck and Alex, roamed suburban Chicago on their bikes looking for intrigue and excitement. Inspired by the exotic romance of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, they acted out elaborate spy missions pitting themselves against imaginary Cold War villains. As friendship carries them through childhood and on to college—in a polarized late-sixties America riven by war and race as well as sex, drugs, and rock and roll—the bad guys cease to be the creatures of make-believe. Caught up in the fervor of that extraordinary and uncanny time, they find themselves swept into a dangerous new game with the highest possible stakes.

Today, only a handful of people are left who know what happened. As Karen reconstructs the past and reconciles the girl she was then with the woman she is now, finally sharing pieces of her secret past with her national-security-cowboy boyfriend and activist granddaughter, the power of memory and history and luck become clear. A resonant coming-of-age story and a thrilling political mystery, True Believers is Kurt Andersen’s most ambitious novel to date, introducing a brilliant, funny, and irresistible new heroine to contemporary fiction.

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Praise for True Believers

“Funny, fiendishly smart.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“A great American novel.”—Vanity Fair
“A big, swinging novel . . . [a] colorful story . . . This could be the most rambunctious meeting your book club will have for a long time.”—The Washington Post
“Intelligent and insightful . . . Think The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Atonement, a ’60s-era female Holden Caulfield. . . . Andersen is an agile storyteller. . . . [There are] witty, occasionally even profound observations about the ’60s and today.”—USA Today
“So epic: Part thriller, part coming-of-age tale, the novel alternates between the present and the 1960s, capturing some of America’s most pivotal moments in history like a time capsule.”—Marie Claire
“This is an ambitious and remarkable novel, wonderfully voiced, about memory, secrets, guilt, and the dangers of certitude. Moreover, it asks essential questions about what it means to be an American and, in a sense, what it means to be America.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Fascinating and wisely observant.”—O: The Oprah Magazine

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Editorial Reviews

Karen Hollander's future hit a road block in her past. This esteemed topflight attorney seemed to be on her way to a Supreme Court appointment when she withdrew herself from consideration because of disturbing events that took place in 1968. Now, with the publication day of her revelatory memoir fast approaching, she looks back, piecing together what happened then and why. A novel about shifting zeitgeists and timeless concerns. Prime time reading for baby boomers and their children.

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My publishers signed me up a year ago to write a book, but not this book. “A candid and inspirational memoir by one of the most accomplished leaders and thinkers of our times,” their press release promised. They think they’re getting a slightly irreverent fleshing out of my shiny curriculum vitae, a plainspoken, self-congratulatory chronicle of A Worthy Life in the Law and the Modern Triumph of American Women, which they’re publishing, ho-hum premise notwithstanding, because I’ve written a couple of best sellers and appear on TV a lot.

By far the most interesting thing about my life, however, is nowhere in my résumé or official bio or Wikipedia entry. I’m not exactly who the world believes I am. Let me cut to the chase: I once set out to commit a spectacular murder, and people died.

But it’s not a simple story. It needs to be unpacked very carefully. Like a bomb.

Trust me, okay?

I am reliable. I am an oldest child. Highly imperfect, by no stretch a goody-goody. But I was a reliable U.S. Supreme Court clerk and then a reliable Legal Aid lawyer, representing with all the verve and cunning I could muster some of the most pathetically, tragically unreliable people on earth. I have been a reliable partner in America’s nineteenth largest law firm, a reliable author of four books, a reliable law professor, a reliable U.S. Justice Department official, a reliable law school dean. I’ve been a reliable parent—as trustworthy a servant, teacher, patron, defender, and worshipper of my children as anyone could reasonably demand, and I think on any given day at least one of the two of them would agree.

I was not an entirely reliable wife for the last decade of my marriage, although my late ex, during our final public fight, called me “reliable to a goddamned fault,” which is probably true. And which may be why the surprising things I did immediately afterward—grabbing his BlackBerry out of his hand and hurling it into a busy New York street, filing for divorce, giving up my law firm partnership, accepting a job that paid a fifth as much, moving three thousand miles away—made him more besotted by me than he’d ever seemed before. As my friend Alex said at the time, “That’s funny—telling Jack Wu ‘Fuck you’ finally made him really want to fuck you.”

I am reliable, but I’m not making the case that reliability is the great human virtue. Nor am I even making the case that reliability is my great virtue. In fact, after four decades in the law, I’ve lost my animal drive for making cases for the sake of making cases, for strictly arguing one of two incompatible versions of the truth, for telling persuasive stories by omitting or twisting certain facts.

So I am not arguing a case here. I’m not setting out to defend myself any more than I am to indict myself. I’m determined to tell something like the whole truth—which, by the way, I don’t believe has ever been done in any American court of law. To tell the whole truth in a legal case would require a discovery process and trial that lasted years, hundreds of witnesses each testifying for many weeks apiece, and rules of evidence rewritten to permit not just hearsay and improperly obtained information but iffy memories of certain noises and aromas and hallucinatory hunches, what a certain half-smile or drag on a cigarette decades ago did or didn’t signify during some breathless three a.m. conversation.

In any event, for the purposes of this book, I am extremely reliable. I have files. Since long before I went to law school, for half a century now—half a century!—I’ve saved every diary and journal, every letter I ever received, catechism worksheets, term papers, restaurant receipts, train schedules, ticket stubs, snapshots, Playbills. At the beginning, my pack-ratting impulse was curatorial, as if I were director of the Karen Hollaender Museum and Archive. I know that sounds narcissistic, but when I was a kid, it seemed like a way to give the future me a means of knowing what the past and perpetually present me was actually like. Prophylactic forensics, you could say.

My memory has always been excellent, but the reason I’m telling my story now is also about maximizing reliability: I’m old enough to forgo the self-protective fibs and lies but still young enough to get the memoir nailed down before the memories begin disintegrating.

Only one in a hundred people my age suffer dementia, and the Googled Internet is like a prosthetic cerebral cortex and hippocampus, letting us subcontract sharpness and outsource memory. But after sixty-five? Atrocious: the incidence of neurodegenerative disease increases tenfold during that decade, and it’s worse for women. I turn sixty-five next May.

So, anyhow, here’s my point: I am a reliable narrator. Unusually reliable. Trust me.

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True Believers 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
DenverBoomer More than 1 year ago
It's astonishing to me that women give this book good reviews. This book would have seriously benefitted by a woman editor showing the author why it's not believable. If a woman raised Ina ultra liberal family in the sixties wasn't even marginally influenced by the women's liberation movement, you would think that the author really wanted her to be a man. She wonders if she is an "insensitive jerk" at one point, rarely a female thought. She conceivaBle dwells a lot on her awakening sexuality without once mentioning birth control or fear of pregnancy. In fact, her approach to sex is very male - so glad her first time was with someone she would never see again? At 17? Ok, so the mystery is all about what horrible thing she and her 3 best friends (all male) did during the anti- war movement in 1968, so maybe all this female nonsense is irrelevant. I kept with it but it wasn't easy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Karen Hollander lived my fantasy life. I'm a bit older, and I've regretted not being more active in my dissent because I had young children in the '60s and '70s. I found this book an accurate, entertaining depiction of the times, and as I finished it, I realized that I'm not much of a risk-taker, with or without the personal baggage. Did I mention that the book is also well-written? -- catwak
goode2shews_74 More than 1 year ago
This is a story about coming of age in the 60s and reflecting upon it in the present day. Karen Hollander is an attorney in her 60s who has declined nomination for the Supreme Court because of a deep, dark secret she has hidden in her past. At the same time, she has decided to write a book, a memoir, and expose everything she and her comrades did in 1968 that has been haunting her ever since. Kurt Anderson is a master at building suspense in each chapter, captivating the reading by alluding to the secrets of the past and then doling it out slowly throughout the book as Karen recounts her childhood and young adult life. This novel is about the roles we take on in life and how the consequences of our decisions affect us and those we love. This novel is great choice for book clubs, classrooms and for anyone who enjoys an intelligent, thought-provoking story.
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NE-Karen More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put it down!! Great book especially if you like a political plot. I'm not big on politics but loved the plot.
KenCady More than 1 year ago
True Believer is a book for baby boomers who want a look back, perhaps imagining themselves as more radical than they really were. I saw myself in parts of the book and wondered where I missed out in others. Most others. I guess I was too conventional. I never plotted to kill anyone. What bothered me the most throughout the novel was the why question. Why did Karen Hollander see the need to reveal a long kept secret at the end of her career? Who would it benefit? It wouldn't particularly hurt anyone as co-conspirator Alex seems to live in a Hollywood script anyway. She only seems to be set to hurt herself- her reputation, and perhaps her family's. But all that aside, it was a nice trip back to the sixties. I had forgotten a lot of it, didn't live a lot of it, and found myself nostalgic for the rest of it. We won't be young again, and one thing I admired about the novel is Karen's involving her granddaughter in the story. The contrast between the generations is notable.
ylhesq More than 1 year ago
True Believers is a club sandwich of a novel - not too heavy, not too light with a satisfying array of diverse flavors. The novel is a Baby Boomer coming of age story wherein we observe the protagonist Karen Hollaender morphing from scampy preteen to adventurous (in many respects) adolescent to campus radical. And the coming of age hook boomerangs (pardon the pseudo-pun) as the reader witnesses 64 year-old, diabetic Karen Hollander clinging quite comfortably to vitality as she chaperones her granddaughter's Occupy protest journey to Miami (in the comfort of motorcoaches and a business-class hotel), works her deteriorating, frequently obfuscating and downright obstinate network of contacts as she labors to complete her memoir and also manages to get in a few booty calls. And she gets this all done while simultaneously parrying the protestations of her daughter who's somewhat concerned she might be off the rocker to which she assumes Karen should be bound. Staying with the sandwich analogy, the novel is a window into the socio-political perspectives of two "sandwich generations" - the one layered between my parents' and my own (Karen) and the one layered between my young children's and my own (Karen's granddaughter Waverly). Having come of age during the Reagan-Bush years, I'm quite detached from the respective cultural zeitgeists that captured each of these women and Andersen does a fine job to spell out what's spinning in both of their heads. True Believers is also a terrific meta-memoir, a memoir about the struggle to recount one's life in a candid, truthful manner, consequences be damned - a refreshing theme in this world of James Freys, Jayson Blairs and Fareed Zakarias. At its core, True Believers is a tale of intrigue with solid narrative; sturdy and nourishing but far from bland. The story synchs with the eras in which it is told without dipping into the realm of a "period piece." For these reasons I believe True Believers easily qualifies as a great American novel.
Emberry More than 1 year ago
Kurt Andersen has done a wonderful job of creating his protagonist’s, Karen Hollander, first person voice. It is both believable and captivating. I love the way he captured the dissonance between Karen’s girlish teenage voice and her grown-up persona. How does he know women so well? The tone he achieves with Karen as the story swings back and forth from the 60’s to today is pitch perfect. I like how elements of Karen’s younger self pop up in the current day parts of the novel. I can identify with the schism between the private voice of a woman who is externally secure, successful and concerned about her public persona who, in private can sound silly, profane, girlish and insecure. I was eager to read more about Karen, a well known lawyer, teacher, dean of an Ivy league school as she struggled to come clean with her guilty conscience and deep dark secrets of her college years by writing a memoire. She has been hiding many things from herself and others for decades. I bought the book, intrigued with Anderson’s use of James Bond in his characters lives and how playing at being spies (I started out with “Harriett the spy” and later graduated to the more sophisticated Bond books) impacts their life choices, actions and decisions. The generation that came of age in the 60’s idols and models were no longer Mom or Dad but celebrities and characters on TV shows and in movies. So instead of wanting to grow up and be a teacher or some valued role model in a young person's life ,it's fictional characters like Emma Peel, Barbarella or a Bond Girl. This was the beginning of what Andersen calls our “ability to fictionalize ourselves like mad”. Indeed it is no surprise that as Karen muses, “real life has become a massive multi-player role-playing game.” What I never appreciated before, having gone to college later in the seventies, is how turbulent, violent and difficult it was to be in college in the late sixties, early seventies. The scenes Andersen paints in the amphetamine amped up dorm room when Karen, Alex, Chuck and Buzzy made some fateful choices, was indelible. For the first time I understood why so many people dropped out of college at that time. The stew of heavy drugs, political seriousness and a commitment to prove one's political convictions at any cost was an unhappy heady mix. Andersen creates a compelling story with vivid characters. I couldn’t put the book down and read it in just a few days. It has clever turns and revelations about the connections between today’s political activists to those in the 60’s wrapped in a thriller plot. As much as this book may appeal to baby boomers and the richness of details of the 60’s era and the delight of having all the many “Aha” markers of their youth come flashing back (I did!), it also just as relevant to the boomer’s children. It has as much to tell how much the world’s leaders or villains haven’t changed in the intervening decades. Big brother just has way better spy equipment today than it did in the 60’s.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Suvorov More than 1 year ago
This is the story of Karen Hollander. Hollander has turned down a possible U.S. Supreme Court nomination. Instead, she decides to write an autobiography, which will reveal a secret about something she and her two best friends did while in college. We are led to believe that it is something so awful, several government agencies covered it up. But she wants to confirm and fill in some details first and finding that info is not easy. The story goes back and forth between Hollander's story when she was young and then what is currently going on in her life. The writing is unnecessarily technical in some parts, but other than that, it is not too bad. For me, it was not a quick read; I had to read it a little at a time because it just did not capture my attention to the point that I did not want to put it down. There is a whole James Bond theme in the book. When Hollander, Alex and Chuck are young, they read the James Bond books and concoct all these mock missions until they one day realize that Bond is just another imperialist puppet. Seriously, if this stuff didn't really happen, Andersen has a great imagination. When you get some 300 pages in the book, you will understand the relevance of the Bond theme, but it came up so often that it got annoying. Reading the details of their missions was boring and I don't know if it is a generational thing or because I don't enjoy James Bond stories. Some of that could have been cut down. Acronyms. Ack! My father and husband are Marines, so I hear acronyms all the time, but even I got sick and tired of hearing all the acronyms. It made me think of Good Morning Vietnam- "Seeing as how the VP is such a VIP, shouldn't we keep the PC on the QT, because if it leaks to the VC, you could end up an MIA, and then we'd all be put on KP." While my interest did increase about mid-way, the book never got to the point of being a page turner. In my opinion, it could have benefit from a little more editing. I ended up using it as my book to read right before I went to bed. I am not insinuating that it put me to sleep, but it was not a book that I would carry around with me because I wanted every opportunity to squeeze in a page or paragraph whenever I had the opportunity. There are some really good parts in the book and if it sounds like something you might be interested in reading, I recommend you give it a try.