Local Deities by Agnes Bushell
Williamantic, Connecticut: Curbstone Press 1990
Until a couple of weeks ago if you’d asked me about great and essential novels about activism, I’d have said that I knew of only two that convey the costs – emotional, physical, political – of activism at the ‘sharp end’. “Vida,” an account of a woman forced underground in the 1960s, written by Marge Piercy, and “Death is Part of the Process” by Hilda Bernstein, a subtle and chilling account of anti-apartheid struggles in the 1960s.
Now I have a third to press upon people; “Local Deities”, by Agnes Bushell.
The blurb –
“Local Deities is based on the lives of two couples who were involved in protests and political actions during the 60s – Erika and Simon, progressive people working within the system, and Annie and Paul, members of a radical group that was tried and convicted on conspiracy charges. In this story, Agnes Bushell recaptures the drama, excitement, and tension of being activists in the United States during the sixties and seventies as she presents the conflict between a woman’s love for her friends and her doubts about their actions, and examines heroes of all sorts – the “local deities.”
is a reasonable summation of the outline of the plot. However, it does not – cannot – convey just how well-told the story is. The opening sequence – of the underground Annie on a shopping expedition, full of (justified) paranoia – gripped me as tightly as the closing stages of “Vida” (that’s high praise, btw).
I devoured this book, its thrills (there are several, none gratuitous), its philosophical sections, its never-boring discussions of strategy and tactics around the legal battle fought by Paul.
Bushell manages to set personal and political dilemmas alongside each other, showing their intersections, their confusions. All four of the principal characters come across as fleshed-out, full of fine and not-so-fine qualities. (The danger in these novels of ideas and politics is that characters are ciphers; Not here.)
I hope I can convince you; this is a book you MUST read. I will be re-reading it every year from now until, well, until the Pending Ecological Debacle finally arrives.
1) reviews of Andrei Makine’s also excellent novel “Human Love” and Doris Lessing’s profoundly irritating “The Good Terrorist” (which I am struggling to finish)
2) reviews of Agnes Bushell’s other books – I’ve gone and bought everything else I can get my hands on. “Day of the Dead” looks corking! The Enumerator was fine.
A couple of quotes from “Local Deities” (not the best bits, but bits that resonated with me, are useful to my thinking at present).
We tried to create alternative organizations. The problem is, the other ones work. They are unfair, yes, they are owned by the aristocracy, yes, they rob us, yes, yes. But they work and ours don’t, not as well, not as efficiently, and who needs them when the others are so much better? Who cares about what’s fair? If it works, there’s no pressing need to fix it. The whole society is like that. It works well enough, so why bother fixing it? So no one will.
… she wonders what makes these people care so much about all this, what motivates them. Guilt, perhaps. Trying to forgive themselves for having this undeserved good fortune, to have been born white in America, somehow lucking out, waking up and finding themselves among the chosen, the world’s elite, living in safety from bullets and betrayals, able to raise their children, put dinner on their tables, go to the movies, go to the Mall, write a letter to the editor, demonstrate on the streets, having everything, in short, except a clear conscience…
“You’re not a socialist, either.”
“No, I’m not. I mean, maybe I am. I just don’t think…” she sighs deeply. In the sigh is everything she doesn’t think about, that she can’t sort out into slogans or words. “I don’t think it’s that simple, that’s all. That if you just replace capitalism with socialism say, you’d have a better model human being. It might help some things, sure, but the economy’s not the disease. I don’t think it’s the disease. I think it’s a symptom. And I don’t think bombing buildings is going to change the disease or the symptoms.”
“So you think our whole lives, everything we’ve done is bullshit, right?”
“No, not bullshit. I don’t think that at all. You believed something and you acted on it. That’s admirable. I believe all sorts of things I don’t act on. But I hate to think… I hate to see you here. Don’t think I’d tell Annie to turn herself in. I just want to know what she wants for her kids. I’d offer to take them if that’s what she wanted.”
“That’s Roque Dalton. His photograph is on the piano, maybe you noticed it. Beautiful man. The Victor Jara of El Salvador. Except instead of being tortured and killed by the right wing militarists, he was tortured and killed by the left wing militarists, his own side. It’s so ironic, Erika. Because Dalton was one of the authors of the urban guerrilla handbook, he and Debray. They developed the idea of the foco. Plus he’s descended from the Daltons, from the Old West bankrobbing days. He and Rousseau have a lot in common. But Dalton changed his mind about strategy, decided El Salvador wasn’t ready for a vanguard. It needed a mass movement, not a party coup. He alienated the militarists, so they sliced him up into little pieces, slowly, amusing themselves. May 10, 1975.
The other aides at the hospital smoking dope, popping pills, some of them taking care of her because she’s special, a white girl, others giving her hell. And she hears about everything, too, everything about drugs and busts, about sex, about death, men cutting each other, women getting raped. But what she listens for in particular, what she listens for all the time, she doesn’t hear. For pain is internalized first, pain is driven inside to fester, everyone knows that. In the ghetto the enemy, the real enemy, is too big to see, the real enemy is so pervasive, so godlike in its absence, nobody dares raise his eyes and look. They cut each other, they oppress their sisters, they poison themselves, they drive themselves into their graves, without ever once seeing who it is they serve.