The popularity of QAnon conspiracy theories continues to astound pundits.
But consider this: In the 1960s into the 1980s, perhaps thousands of smart, college-educated Americans sincerely believed the country was on the verge of a violent, Russian-style revolution. If only enough bombs went off in enough public buildings, the U.S. government and capitalism itself would collapse like a house of cards.
Things turned out a little differently.
Greensboro novelist Lee Zacharias (“At Random,” “Across the Great Lake”) recalls these tense times in “What a Wonderful World This Could Be,” a tale of youthful idealism colliding with age and experience.
Zacharias’ protagonist is Alex, an art photographer who teaches at a small Virginia college. (Only her mother called her “Alexandra.”) In early 1982, she’s 36 and hasn’t seen her husband for 11 years.
But then he shows up: Ted Neal, antiwar activist and bombing suspect, is about to surrender himself to federal authorities in Washington. Then, the mother of a man who went MIA in Vietnam shoots him in the head.
Alex sinks into an emotional tailspin, and into an ill-advised affair with a pretty-boy grad student. While Ted lies in a coma, with few chances of recovery, Alex can’t decide whether to visit his bedside. Maybe she should just tell the doctors to pull the plug?
Meanwhile, through flashbacks, we meet the younger Alex and see how she reached this point. In 1960 she was a precocious campus brat, the daughter of a once-famous alcoholic novelist and an art teacher. As a teen, she dated college boys and was a regular at the art-house movie theater.
Things turn serious when she meets Stephen, an older photographer. She becomes his model, then his muse. He teaches his craft to her.
Stephen is left behind, however, when Alex meets Ted, a charismatic campus activist, just back from a summer as a “Freedom Rider” registering Blacks to vote in Mississippi.
Ted leads her into the scene around Students for a Democratic Society, trying to organize in the rundown Crow Hill neighborhood and living in a “collective” with like-minded (and eccentric) longhairs and folk-music fans.
Things grow more intense as the Vietnam War grows hot — and college enrollment no longer means an automatic draft exemption. Some of Ted’s friends lose faith in voting, and in non-violence.
In the midst of all this, Alex develops her eye and becomes a serious photographer.
Zacharias, a poet and a serious photographer herself, has a sharp memory for how this era felt. (Oldies fans will recognized the title as a takeoff on the 1960 Sam Cooke hit “What a Wonderful World,” the one that begins, “Don’t know much about history …”.)
She develops an intriguing technique. In chapters with the younger Alex, narration is relatively straightforward. With 1980s Alex, however, the sentence structure is more complex, convoluted — as if Virginia Woolf were tutoring Henry James on stream of consciousness. This approach has its rewards, but readers should be forewarned that the book will require more mental exertion than a beach read.
“What a Wonderful World This Could Be” is also an elegy to the nearly lost world of pre-digital photography: amber-lit darkrooms and the aroma of chemical washes as apprentices in the dark practiced the alchemy of Ansel Adams, Walker Evans and Margaret Bourke-White, catching light in black, white and shadow.
Ben Steelman can be reached at 910-616-1788 or [email protected]
‘WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD THIS COULD BE’
By Lee Zacharias
Lake Dallas, Texas: Madville Publishing, $19.85