Fictionalized story of Patty Hearst

July 10, 2005|By Harvey Pekar | Harvey Pekar,Special to the Sun



By Christopher Sorrentino. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 528 pages.

In 1995, Christopher Sorrentino published Sound on Sound, his first novel, which showed him to be the possessor of gifts few novelists ever acquire. The book focused on a rock band, "Hi-Fi." The first chapter dealt with one night in their existence, the other chapters provided commentary, sometimes contradictory, about the band's prior and subsequent history. Though somewhat repetitive, it was a daring work that demonstrated Sorrentino's extraordinary technical facility, fine eye and ear for detail, and rich sense of humor.

Now Sorrentino has come out with his second novel, Trance, a fictionalized version of Patty Hearst's abduction and stay, mostly as a member in good standing, with the Symbionese Liberation Army. Hearst's name has been changed to Alice Galton, other characters in the book have been renamed and fictional elements have been introduced, though the plot is generally faithful to what happened to Hearst in 1974 and 1975.

In the 10 years between Sound on Sound and Trance, Sorrentino has evolved a more accessible style, though he remains a virtuoso, and much of the success of this book is due to his writing skill.

We follow Alice from her February 1974 abduction to her September 1975 capture.

The book opens with Galton on the run in Los Angeles with eight of her SLA cohorts after a bank robbery (during which she herself has fired a gun). Six of them are trapped and killed in a shootout, but three others, Alice, Teko and Yolanda, are not with them.

They return to the San Francisco Bay area to regroup and encounter Guy Mock, a radical sportswriter. Mock wants to write a book about the SLA on the run, and, to enable him to do so, puts them up in safe houses in Manhattan, Eastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York.

The three SLA members hook up in Manhattan with Joan Shimada, a Berkeley fugitive from earlier days who Mock is already supporting. Shimada is more sophisticated politically than the SLA group and refuses to take orders from their chief, Teko. (Women dominated the SLA, although they installed males as figurehead leaders.) Shimada has a liberating influence on Alice, who, although she remains anti-capitalist, starts to view Teko as inept.

The final months of the SLA are spent in the Bay area, as the group gains a few more members, robs a couple of banks (nervously killing one woman in the process), and even labors as house painters or waitresses.

Meanwhile, the FBI pulls out all stops to locate the SLA, but it takes a relatively long time to get them. Sorrentino deals with many issues and events, constantly shifting emphasis from one person to another and describing varied points of view. How close he gets to portraying his characters as they really were may be debatable, but he does bring them to life as plausible human beings that you can identify with.

Above all, Sorrentino is an insightful, sensitive writer who makes you believe you're seeing what he's describing. He also seems to enjoy writing, and conveys his enthusiasm to the reader. Some of the material in this book isn't essential to the plot, but makes excellent set pieces: once Alice gets stuck with a waitress gig in a Catskills hotel, and has to listen to a Jewish comedian who's too well-educated and bright for his aged audience.

He remarks, "An honest historical appraisal of Richard Nixon and his times would approach the subject like a documentary about typhoid or bubonic plague. 'What conditions allowed him to germinate, to thrive?' Those are the good questions. But who wants to imagine a posterity that'll be critical of us? How deflating. We want from the future what we want from our kids: Sit up straight and listen. 'Oh, we are the greatest generation! We defeated Hitler, we made the desert bloom, we moved to South Orange, and last but not least, we got Nixon the hell out of there. So, love, honor, obey, cherish, venerate, adore, and -- please -- call once, make it twice, a week.' "

Occasionally uneasy audience members yell at him, "Tell a joke."

Sorrentino's already 42 with only two books out. Hurry up, man.

Harvey Pekar is the author of the American Splendor comic books series.

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