I wasn’t familiar with Kurt Andersen before I read “True Believers,” his recent decades-spanning novel. I didn’t know he’d written other books or hosted an NPR show or co-founded Spy magazine. For that last reason alone, Andersen should go down in the snark hall of fame.
But I wouldn’t have guessed any of those things, really, about Andersen from reading “True Believers.” Actually, I don’t think I would have guessed the author was male. The narrative voice of the story – a 60-something female lawyer, remembering her days as an earnest young girl and would-be political anarchist – is that authentic.
Andersen tells the story of Karen Hollander, aforementioned attorney and one-time-potential Obama nominee to the Supreme Court. As the story opens, Hollander tells the readers she’s working on an autobiography. But she teases that it’s unlikely to be the book that people who’ve seen her on TV talk shows would expect.
That’s because, as Hollander weaves her modern-day efforts to solve one mystery of her past, she recounts her time growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, her relationship with her liberal parents in the Chicagoland area and her two best friends, Chuck and Alex.
Karen, Chuck and Alex are fans of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, devouring them as they are published. Then they act out scenes that, if not really from the books, are in the spirit of the books.
The boys might play Bond and CIA operative friend Felix Leiter, for example, while Karen plays a female operative or femme fatale, like the narrator of “The Spy Who Loved Me.” They aren’t slaves to the stories and come up with their own funny variations. In one escapade, Karen mixes sugar into her Coke at a restaurant and cajoles a man at another table into sipping it to see if there’s anything wrong with it. Mission accomplished: Karen reports to the boys that she’s just poisoned James Bond.
As the three get older, inevitably, other considerations come into play. Karen and Chuck begin to see each other, leaving Alex feeling like the odd man out. As they go to college, other friends enter their small circle.
But they are fated to take on a mission that rivals any of their pretend-spy adventures. The socially conscious three decide to commit an act of protest – or domestic terrorism – that Karen finds haunts her even in the present day.
Andersen does a fine job moving back and forth from the adult Hollander’s investigation into secrets even she didn’t know from her college years to those years and the shocking plot the friends undertake.
“True Believers” is a – strangely enough – charming story, largely because of Andersen’s ability to write the smart, funny and vulnerable Hollander with such an authentic voice.
It won’t happen, and it probably wouldn’t be appropriate, but “True Believers” makes me wish Andersen would give us other adventures of Karen Hollander. She’s a brave and appealing character and I was sad to say goodbye to her at the end.