Set against the rise and fall of the radical antiwar group the Weather Underground, The Company You Keep is a sweeping American saga about sacrifice, the ecstatic righteousness of youth, and the tension between political ideals and family loyalties. When Jason Sinai, one of the last Vietnam-era fugitives still wanted on murder charges for a robbery gone wrong in 1974, encounters a young newspaper reporter in search of a story, he must abandon years of safe underground life for the dangerous life of the road— traveling across America and deep into his past. It is a vivid re-creation of lives lived underground—of battle-scarred veterans, ideologues, profiteers, criminals, and bystanders.
Hush little baby
My poor little thing
You've been shuffled about
Like a pawned wedding ring
It must seem strange
Love was here then gone
And the Oklahoma sunrise
Becomes the Amarillo dawn
In this life?
Ask the man
Who's lost his wife.
Date: Saturday, June 1, 2006
To: "Isabel Montgomery"
cc: maillist: The_Committee
Subject: letter 1
My dearest Izzy,
All parents are bad parents. This is the first thing I want to tell you. All parents are bad parents, and the sooner you understand this, the easier it's going to be to decide what to do.
I mean, how can we possibly be anything else? Everything we tell you from the day of your birth is such bullshit. We tell you that Mommy and Daddy love each other, that there is a difference between bad and good, and that everything, always, is going to be all right. Then you grow up and find that Mommy and Daddy can't stand each other; that nobody cares if the rich are bad or the poor are good; that most of the world is at war and that everything is in fact looking like it's going to be coming out all, entirely, completely wrong.
We didn't tell you about that part. We didn't tell you that we don't have the faintest idea where we came from, we don't have a clue about why we're here, and as for where we're going, God knows. Except we don't know if there is a God.
See? And so we lie, and therefore, are bad parents.
Right? I'm not arguing with you, Isabel. I don't want you to excuse me, understand me, or sympathize with me. I lied to you, I deceived you about the very fact of who I was, who you were, and then I abandoned you, and all this by the time you were seven. You can't, I think you have to agree, get much worse than that, parent-wise.
Cerebral, rousing... it bids well to enter the company of our best fiction about the Vietnam era. (The New York Times Book Review)
The single point that I want to make, in fact, is that all parents are bad parents. We in fact decide, very early on, to lie. And the fact is, we make that decision because the truth would have been worse.
If you think that's defending myself, fine. You can trash this e-mail and miss your plane, that's your choice. But in fact-in fact, now, whether you believe it or not-the truth would have been worse.
I mean, what the hell were we supposed to tell you? Think about it. Hey, darling, you know what? After you go to bed, Mommy and Daddy can hardly sit in the same room without starting to fight, bitter fights, where they say horrible things specifically to hurt each other as deeply as they can. And guess what? Chances are 50-50 that you and some lucky man, one day, are going to make each other just that miserable too.
See what I mean, Isabel? Or how about this:
My dearest girl, bad people are murdering each other horribly from Sierra Leone to Bethlehem, sometimes with machetes, sometimes with guns, and sometimes by torture and starvation. They do it for each other's money, they do it because they don't like what each other believes, and in some places-Ireland, Israel, magical lands over the seas-they do it because they just don't know how to stop.
Then you run off and play with your Legos, right? Right. More likely, after that, you go play with a semiautomatic in a school cafeteria.
Therefore we lie, and we do so because the truth would have been worse. Isabel. You are all grown up now. Seventeen, and filled with the knowledge of good and evil. I didn't mean to brutalize you with the truth when you were a baby, and I don't mean to brutalize you now, either.
I can see you, as you are now, in this spring of 2006. Here in America it is two in the afternoon, the sun distant behind cloud, the field outside my room turning the palest green in the early spring. Where you are, England, it is evening, 7 p.m., the season already in leaf, the night kind with still, warm air. I imagine you in your dorm room, reading this as you sneak cigarette smoke out the windows-in England, I know, school is still in session, and in England, I know, people still smoke.
What I don't know, but I imagine, is that this e-mail isn't any big surprise to you. You've always known it was coming. June 27, 2006-the date has been in your mind as long as you can remember. You have, I think, long been expecting us to contact you. The Committee, your mother calls us. She's entertained you no end, I'm sure, with stories of what we had to go through to get this to you. Group decisions. Pointless arguments. Criticism-self-criticism sessions. You have been waiting for June 27, 2006, for years, and now that it is only weeks away, you are not surprised, I think, to hear from us, nor are you surprised to hear what we are asking you to do.
I see you by the window, your delicate face illumined by a setting sun, the same sun I see outside my own window, right now, from such a different angle on the planet. You are a slight person, seventeen years old. You are, as you have always been, a denial of both of your parents: my round-nosed, high-cheeked daughter with her nut-brown hair; the olive-skinned, brown-eyed daughter of blond Julia Montgomery. And in each way that you do resemble one parent, you deny the other: the intensely studious daughter of the woman who makes European gossip columns every month; my cynical daughter, although I am, if nothing else, an idealist. What do they call you now, Isabel? The Naught Generation, right? The Millennial Generation. No politics, not even antiwar, no ideals, no drugs. The first generation since I was a child, nearly fifty years, not to use drugs! See, I have not seen you in a long time, Isabel, but I know you.
And I can hear what you're thinking, too. You're thinking, You know me, Dadda? I don't think so. Or better yet, Dadda, I do not think so one bit.
Okay. I admit, maybe it is a little girl's voice that I am remembering. But memory is telling, isn't it? Because I think I understand also that if I want to get Isabel, the young woman, to do what I want her to do, it is still a little girl I have to convince.
Yes, my dear. We are going to ask you to do it. We are going to ask you to leave one of the nicest places on earth, three weeks from now, and fly to one of the worst. Detroit, Michigan. We are just what your mother says we are: the "Committee," a bunch of balding ex-hippies, at least, I am bald, and I am an ex-hippie. And we are in fact contacting you-and that by e-mail, so as to avoid your grandfather and your mother-to convince you, just as you have always known we were going to, to do something very public, very exposed, and very awful indeed.
We want you, on Sunday, June 25, to escape your grandfather's security, those bodyguards who are there ostensibly to protect Ambassador Montgomery's granddaughter from kidnapping but in fact to keep you from doing exactly what we have contacted you to ask you to do. We want you to take a flight from your picture-book little school for rich kids in England to a maximum-security state prison in Michigan-note the difference-and there to testify at a parole hearing, and in so doing, to commit a horrendous act of betrayal.
I won't blame you for saying no.
And still, I am going to try to convince you to do it.
This is why.
Because while it's true that all parents are bad parents, there is something else true also. That as bad as we were-and we were very, very bad-we were also as good as ever we could be. Given the circumstances of our lives, which were dramatic, and were not circumstances of our making.
And that's the point, Izzy. That's the point. I don't deny that I was a bad parent. I'm not writing to excuse that fact. I'm writing, and so are the others, to tell you why.
We're writing to tell you why, in the summer of 1996, ten years ago, your good, kind, just father, a man widely admired in the picture-book little town where you lived, was revealed to be someone altogether other than who he said. We're writing to tell you how the world he had constructed around you-a kind and just world; a world filled with sun and snow and water; a world of rich colors and high adventure; a world of safe interiors and long, fearless nights-how that world was all revealed to be a lie.
We're writing to ask you to understand that not just your parents, but all parents are bad parents, and we are that because we have no choice.
That one day, you will be a bad parent too.
Okay. That's why we're writing. And we all agreed on that. How to write, on the other hand, was harder for us. The finer points of how-that required the extended debate that your mother, no doubt, would have found amusing. See, we agreed to tell you the truth. But as to what was the truth, that was not so clear.
First we thought we'd write it together. Billy Cusimano got his computer geek to give us all e-mails on his Web site, so people like Ben and Rebeccah don't have to use their work e-mails, and none of us have to worry too much about confidentiality: apparently Billy-who doesn't quite understand that Cusimano Organics is actually a legal business-uses some pretty far-out encryption. So I get started, write a dozen pages, send them to the Committee. Not ten minutes later, Rebeccah IM's me, that damn little AOL Instant Messenger window popping up on my screen. "This a walk down amnesia lane, Pops? Or are we trying to tell the girl something about what really happened?" Pops, for Christ sake. Then Jeddy chimes in, wondering whether I'm drawing on a Trotskyite historiographical framework, here, because he wants to know how to interpret my blatant falsifications of fact-propaganda or Alzheimer's. Then Ben, always useful, asks if we're trying to get Isabel to help us or to hurt us, 'cause from what I've written so far, it looked like we should all be jailed without parole, and soon it's clear that no one is going to agree on anything. Until Molly suggests that we just each take turns, the five, six of us who played direct roles in what happened the summer of 1996.
Here's her plan: we'll each tell you a piece of the story, and then hand it on to the next one, and like that we won't have to agree with each other, but just let you see the whole thing. And furthermore, we each do it alone, so whatever contradictions there might be in our accounts, you can hear them yourself. I'll go first, and when I've done as much as I can in one sitting, I'll e-mail it to you and cc the rest of the Committee, then someone else will take the story a step further. And like that, unless you start blocking our e-mails, little by little, the whole story will come to you, and all you have to do is read.
So everyone agreed to that, and everyone agreed that I had to start, and so the problem then became, Where? The day you were born? The day I was born? The day civil war broke out in Spain? I fretted over that for a good few days of Michigan spring rains. And then I thought, the hell with it, we are telling the truth, aren't we? And trying to tell it in the way it actually happened, aren't we? Well, if that's the case, it all really started in Billy Cusimano's Sea of Green in June 1996, and it is, therefore, with Billy that I am going to start.
A hybrid of political novel, love story, cat-and-mouse thriller... an addictive page-turner of a book. (Seattle Times)