The Weatherman Temptation

The Weatherman Temptation

Books discussed: Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta; American Woman by Susan Choi; The Darling by Russell Banks; The Company You Keep by Neil Gordon.

Four new novels revisit a particularly tumultuous era of American history

Eat the Document
by Dana Spiotta
Scribner, 2006, 291 pp., $24.00

American Woman
by Susan Choi
HarperCollins Publishers, 2003, 369 pp., $24.95

The Darling
by Russell Banks
HarperCollins Publishers, 2004, 392 pp., $25.95

The Company You Keep
by Neil Gordon
Viking, 2003, 406 pp., $25.95

The national book award nomination in October for Eat the Document, a novel about the Weather Underground by Dana Spiotta, came at a time when several other strong novels addressed similar themes. Russell Banks’s The Darling, Susan Choi’s American Woman, and Neil Gordon’s The Company You Keep, alongside Eat the Document, suggest a renewed interest in imagining what we might call “the Weatherman temptation.” It arises when young activists are drawn toward violent tactics, out of despair for democracy—especially in the early seventies, when the Vietnam War seemed endless—and maybe again today, when the Iraq War and the war on terror also seem endless.

For anyone who has ever tried to change a government policy through political organizing and political action, it’s all too easy to understand the Weatherman temptation. It goes like this: the issues are crystal clear to us, but change seems impossible. The people in power are causing immense destruction, but the system seems impervious to challenge. The government is supposed to be democratic, but the American people are so distracted by the media or blinded by ideology or bought off by consumerism that they will never wake up.

But a few of us see what’s going on. We know that the hour is getting late, that too many people have died, and that it’s time to get serious—no more fun and games. Although we are few, we are not powerless. Because we are white and privileged, we can strike back in the heart of the empire. And by the strategic use of targeted violence, we can make sure our actions are not ignored. Our violence will create images that will be irresistible to the media, and we will thereby turn the ideological weapons of the powerful against them. We will reveal the system’s vulnerability. We will bring a bit of fear to the hearts of the rulers. We will show them they will pay a price for their crimes.

The oppressed and the excluded will see the same thing; we will show them that they are not alone, and not as powerless as they have been told they are. And althoug...

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