Book Review: Deb Olin Unferth’s ‘Revolution’ Is a Bildungsroman for the ‘Believer’ Set

In 1987, Deb Olin Unferth followed her boyfriend to war. She was 18, and she was in love with an

In 1987, Deb Olin Unferth followed her boyfriend to war. She was 18, and she was in love with an eccentric college senior she was sure was a genius. “The women in my family fell in love with geniuses, was how I understood it,” Ms. Unferth writes in her memoir, Revolution, and George–“spectacular, misunderstood, brilliant” George–was her man.

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Today, Ms. Unferth is a narrowly but deeply admired writer of fiction, hailed wherever the names Diane Williams and Gary Lutz hold currency. But when she fell in with George, she was a bored freshman surrounded by “smiley, well-built women … eager to describe their organizational achievements.”

George stormed her life like a riot of idiosyncracy. He loved pranks and refused to pay bills on principle. The money he denied his corporate creditors he handed out to anyone who asked, a wealth-redistribution scheme that left him perennially broke. “He simply didn’t care about money, possessions, sleep, food,” Ms. Unferth writes. “I found this daring and visionary. I wanted to be like that too.”

Being like George meant sleeping in the physics lounge, wearing matched jackets and pushing a car across the Utah state line for the sake of a private joke. It also meant becoming a Christian. “I don’t know how to explain that,” Ms. Unferth writes, though the answer seems obvious. “All [George] had to do was say he was a Christian for a while and soon I was saying I was a Christian too.”

Like the armed priests of Nicaragua, George believed that building a communist revolution was his Christian duty. He and Ms. Unferth set out with a vague plan to interview whatever revolutionaries they could find between Mexico and Panama. Along the way they got engaged, they got robbed and they contracted enough kinds of diarrhea to demand a taxonomy.

They came home hungry and broke a year later. Much to the relief of her middle-class Jewish parents, the trip maimed Ms. Unferth’s faith in Christianity and armed revolution. It also broke her faith in George. By the time she returned, she knew–obscurely but surely–that she would leave him and start a new life.

Revolution shares the tone of genial self-abasement that’s become the default of autobiographical prose in our day, and so it’s not surprising to find it crammed with confessions about how confused Ms. Unferth and her implacably confident boyfriend actually were. “We had absolutely no effect on anything that happened,” she tells us. “The only thing that changed … was us.”

The pair’s naïveté kept pace with their futility. About Guatemala the author writes, “We heard about the killings but we didn’t know the extent and the scale. Or maybe we did know and chose not to understand.” As these lines suggest, Revolution has no pretensions to reportage or analysis. Ms. Unferth is not interested in playing Joan Didion after the fact. Hers is a bildungsroman for the Believer set, a portrait of the artist as a young and clueless revolutionary.

Ms. Unferth is frank that it’s also a book she’s been trying to write for a long time. “I have sixteen-year-old drafts of these scenes,” she tells us. Her patience shows. The stories have a rounded warmth that suggests they’ve been passed around a bar a few times and dusted with equal helpings of nostalgia and regret. The jokes are crisp and understated, the sentences clean and knapped.

The memoir’s narrative voice is charming to a fault, quirky in ways that make it easy to tweak and impossible to dislike. At times, Ms. Unferth’s self-deprecations seem more eager than candid, and the ingenuous tone can perversely sound too knowing. The atmosphere of bumbling affability captures the bewilderment of a young American abroad, but it doesn’t prepare us for Ms. Unferth’s admission that “it’s hard to explain how nervous I was.” The truth is that she doesn’t really try.

Ms. Unferth has no illusions that Revolution‘s plot is unique. “A young person goes away and comes home. Everyone has that story to tell.” But what helps her memoir escape any predictable trajectory is the fascination with George that occupies its later sections.

After deciding she wants her ex-boyfriend to read an early draft of the book, Ms. Unferth hires a private detective to find him. She’d heard that he’d settled and married in Brazil, but when the detective suggests that George is on the lam in the U.S., Ms. Unferth feels a nearly metaphysical solace: “I needed to know that George still existed, still exists, that the thing he is exists, that it’s out there somewhere. … I want it to exist.”

A phone number turned up by the detective puts her in touch with a boy she suspects is George’s teenage son. Ms. Unferth asks him to deliver a message: “Tell him: ‘Aquì no se rinde nadie.’ … It was a Sandinista slogan. We used to say it all the time. Here no one surrenders.”

Mr. Baird, former editor of Chicago Review, lives in Uganda.

Book Review: Deb Olin Unferth’s ‘Revolution’ Is a Bildungsroman for the ‘Believer’ Set