Off the Shelf: Messy lives by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

They strove to do something great, something meaningful, but, objectively, the results were a disaster. That loosely describes the main characters in two recent novels: “Revolutionaries” by Joshua Furst (Alfred A. Knopf) and “Donna Has Left the Building” by Susan Jane Gilman (Grand Central Publishing). However, the novelists approach their characters’ lives from very different viewpoints. In “Revolutionaries,” Freedom (Fred) Snyder tells the story of his famous 1960s radical parent, Lenny Snyder, while, in contemporary times, Gilman’s narrator, Donna (Cohen) Koczynski, looks to regain the joy of her wilder younger years.
Lenny Snyder is clearly based on Abbie Hoffman (Furst even thanks Hoffman in his acknowledgments), but rather than hearing from the founder of the Yippie protest movement, Furst recounts Lenny’s life from his son’s perspective. Unlike his father, Fred avoids the limelight, but can’t seem to avoid people who want to learn more about Lenny. The novel reads like one side of a conversation, with Fred offering information about the parts of his father’s life he saw when he was a naive child and, later, a slightly more cynical teenager. Fred also debates how much of Lenny’s behavior was based on his desire for a new society and how much was caused by Lenny’s mental health issues.
The novel follows the basic outline of Hoffman’s life: the protests at the Democratic convention in 1968, the free love movement, his arrest for selling drugs, his time underground (leaving his wife and son to manage on their own), his surrender years later and the sad ending of his life. What will strike readers is the mixed feelings Fred has about his father. On the one hand, he feels Lenny is a hero. On the other, he could be a scary person whose moods were unstable. Parts of Fred’s early upbringing would qualify as child abuse today, although Lenny and his wife believed their style of parenting freed Fred from the conventions of society.
In the novel, Lenny’s being Jewish played a role in his arrest. Fred notes how fearful people were of the havoc caused by the hippie and Yippie movements. Fred feels that, by the 1970s, people were tired of that chaos and arresting Lenny would show that these revolutionaries were really just a bunch of hoodlums. Fred notes, “How helpful, then, if Lenny – chaos incarnate – turned out to have never been more than a dirty Jew, a fast-talking petty thief finally exposed to have built his whole career on the exploitation of their children’s sweet, wishful dreams. Look! This man was no angel of light! He never intended to lead you back to Eden! This is who he is, who he’s always been. A stooped, hook-nosed creature on the make for a big score.”
The beauty of “Revolutionaries” is that it shows just how complex a person Lenny was, as it clearly reveals his faults and his desire to remake the world into a better place. This is not a work for those who prefer to keep their heroes on a pedestal. Instead, Furst shows the roller coaster life that Lenny led and how his family – particularly his son – struggled to survive the sudden, and sometimes unexpected, twists and turns.
While Lenny’s son writes of his father’s ups and downs, Donna Koczynski offers a view of the mess her own life has become. The 45-year-old’s world comes crashing down around her when she returns home from a convention for her job as a “culinary ambassador” for Privileged Kitchens (meaning she sells their products) to discover something very upsetting about her husband, Joey. Although Donna is a recovering alcoholic, the shock about her husband does not lead her to drink, even though everyone, including her two children (Ashley, who is in college, and Austin, who is in high school) expects that of her. Unable to settle back into her regular life, though, Donna decides to make a pilgrimage: “A great rock ‘n’ roll pilgrimage in honor of my best former self... I’d feel my way in the dark driving without a map – you couldn’t get much more punk rock than that.” While parts of the pilgrimage don’t work out the way she expected, Donna contacts people from her past, including her college roommate and her high school boyfriend.
Unfortunately, most of what she does turns into a complicated mess. Floundering and unsure where to turn, and whether she can or wants to salvage her marriage and her former life, Donna learns that her daughter is in trouble and heads to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in a rescue effort that makes her own troubles seem less important. The shock of what is occurring brings forth her Jewish identity: “I was Jewish mostly by heritage. Certainly, I’d had no religious upbringing. Yet I’d still had drilled into me like a prayer, like Torah, the number Six million.” Yet, even as she better understands the state of the world, she can’t shake the problems of her own life. 
“Donna Has Left the Building” is an odd novel, which veers from one extreme – being a very personal exploration of Donna’s experiences – to one that speaks of social action as Donna comes to realize (or remember) that there is a greater world that needs her help. Readers may find their reactions to her dilemmas ranging from irritation to sympathy – or a combination of both. Gilman has succeeded in creating a complex, interesting character, although one might wish Donna was less melodramatic and more sensible.