“Khe Sanh and Altamont: red clay and yellow grass…the senseless slaughter of Vietnam and the folly of utopian fantasy. Red clay and yellow grass, a battleground and a rock festival, repositories of my generation’s honor and shame…but which resides where?”
—from Altamont Augie
Altamont Augie, a novel of the late 1960s, is concerned with the meaning of national honor and the choice between nihilism and tradition that all free societies must face.
After being assigned to cut a trailer for the 30th anniversary re-release of the 1969 rock documentary Gimme Shelter, Los Angeles trailer editor CALEB LEVY becomes obsessed with an obscure fatality that occurred at Altamont, the notorious concert profiled in the film. His quest to identify a John Doe who drowned in an irrigation canal an hour into the concert leads to a stunning discovery: Caleb’s own mother was at Altamont, and knew the man in question. When confronted, she tells a story that forever changes Caleb’s life.
It is the story of DAVID NOBLE and JACKIE LUNDQUIST, college lovers who clash when he joins the marines to fight a war she opposes. Her pride wounded by his rush to war, Jackie ignores David’s letters from Vietnam, where he survives the blood-red clay of Khe Sahn before returning home to find Jackie a prominent campus radical. To her, the faltering war in Vietnam is a failure of national conscience; to David it is a failure of national honor. But neither Jackie’s rise to fame as the alluring Radical Queen nor David’s counter-protest activities in support of the war can extinguish their passion for one another. Their love endures, even while fighting on opposite sides of the defining issue of their time, the New Left and New Right battling for a generation’s political soul—a battle that rages still. Both their tumultuous affair and the Age of Aquarius itself cartwheel into the decade’s last great rock festival: Altamont, the metaphoric Death of the Sixties, where shame is ascendant and honor will wait thirty years for its due.
The usual narrative of the Sixties has as its cornerstone the Generation Gap. But this was a passing, adolescent thing. Of more lasting consequence was a conflict within the Baby Boom generation itself, the seldom-told story of campus showdowns between Students for a Democratic Society and Young Americans for Freedom—student activists of the New Left and New Right. It is the dramatization of this latter conflict that distinguishes Altamont Augie from other novels about the Sixties that have preceded it.
Reading Group Discussion Questions for Altamont Augie
- The author’s use of a framing sequence to introduce and conclude the story calls to mind Philip Roth’s use of a similar framing device in American Pastoral. How does the use of this element affect the reader’s perception of the story? Does it diminish dramatic tension by revealing up front that the protagonist will die? Or does the use of Caleb Levy’s scenes to introduce the story increase dramatic interest by adding complexity to the plot and by causing the reader to want to learn why the lead character died in such a futile manner?
- The title Altamont Augie is derived in part from Caleb Levy’s fondness for The Adventures of Augie March, a novel by Saul Bellow about a prototypical American’s quest for identity during the Great Depression that championed the notion that an individual, no matter how disadvantaged, could succeed in America by virtue of his or her own effort and ability. What, by Caleb’s allusion to this particular American classic, is Richard Barager signaling about the nature of his story and protagonist?
- David Noble is a “serial foster child” whose fear of dying as anonymously as he was raised becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Discuss the irony of having a protagonist who lives and dies anonymously—his life unacknowledged, his self-identity never realized—belong to a generation whose legendary self-indulgence (during the Sixties) would give rise to a decade of self-absorption (during the Seventies, characterized by Tom Wolfe as “The Me Decade”).
- In the scenes leading up to David’s enlistment, who makes the better argument for or against American involvement in Vietnam: Kyle Levy by his denouncement of American Imperialism, or David Noble through his embrace of American Exceptionalism? What did David mean when he told Jackie that Kyle Levy was the reason he, David, was enlisting in the Marine Corps? Which is the higher form of patriotism: democratic dissent, or fighting for your country in combat?
- Why is Jackie attracted to David and why does her attraction to him prove, despite their incompatibilities, so deep-seated and enduring?
- It has been said that war brings out the best and worst in a soldier—in the course of a single day. What virtue did war inspire in David? What vice? Did David discover his self-identity in Vietnam, or by loving Jackie?
- Beau tells David and Colucci that, “It ain’t love of country that makes men die for one another—it’s the willingness of men to die for one another that makes for love of country. That’s what honor is.” What does he mean by this? In light of your answer, who is more honorable, Hector or Achilles? Grant or Lee? David or Kyle Levy? Why?
- Jackie Lundquist and Kyle Levy belong to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a Sixties student activist movement that was one of the main iconic representations of the country’s New Left. Discuss the activities of the SDS in the Sixties. Would you have supported these activities? Why or why not?
- Do you identify with the characters of Jackie and Kyle or do you identify more with David Noble? How did David and Jackie’s value systems differ? What do you think would have happened if David Noble hadn’t joined the Marines?
- Jackie relentlessly tries to change David: the clothes he wears; his views on the war; attempting to convince him to take drugs to enlighten himself. Yet David seems content with Jackie the way she is. What do her efforts to change David reveal about Jackie, and what does David’s acceptance of Jackie reveal about him? By story’s end, which character, David or Jackie, changes more, and why?
- In The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger uses the cabbie Horowitz to tell Holden Caulfield what he needs to know about life at a critical juncture. O’Rourke, the San Francisco cabbie who drives David to the St. Francis Hotel to meet Jackie, performs the same function in Altamont Augie, imparting much-needed philosophical knowledge to a young protagonist at a turning point in the story. What purpose is served by the author’s subtle but intentional parallel to The Catcher in the Rye, a novel David was critical of earlier in the story?
- Concepts of honor and shame—two sides of the same coin—are threaded throughout Altamont Augie: Jackie’s stated disbelief in shame; David’s love of Ivanhoe; Beau’s reverence for Robert E. Lee; David’s shame over surviving the Ghost Patrol; the use of Altamont and Khe Sanh as settings; the actions of Jackie and David at Altamont Speedway. Taking all the preceding into consideration, what does Kyle Levy mean when he calls honor “a vital human instinct?”
- Describe the influence the Sixties had on your development. Were you or your parents involved in the antiwar movement? How involved were you (or your parents) and what activities did you/they participate in? Were you/they actively involved or more of a bystander? Why? How do you think history will define the legacy of the Sixties?
- Do you think the partisanship of contemporary Red and Blue America is in part a continuation of the political conflict of the Sixties between student activists of the New Left and New Right? Explain why or why not.