Dana Spiotta, whom Michiko Kakutani called "wonderfully observant and wonderfully gifted...with an uncanny feel for the absurdities and sadness of contemporary life" (The New York Times), has written a bold and moving novel about a fugitive radical from the 1970s who has lived in hiding for twenty-five years. Eat the Document is a hugely compelling story of activism, sacrifice, and the cost of living a secret.
In the heyday of the 1970s underground, Bobby DeSoto and Mary Whittaker -- passionate, idealistic, and in love -- design a series of radical protests against the Vietnam War. When one action goes wrong, the course of their lives is forever changed. The two must erase their past, forge new identities, and never see each other again.
Now it is the 1990s. Mary lives in the suburbs with her fifteen-year-old son, who spends hours immersed in the music of his mother's generation. She has no idea where Bobby is, whether he is alive or dead.
Shifting between the protests in the 1970s and the consequences of those choices in the 1990s, Dana Spiotta deftly explores the connection between the two eras -- their language, technology, music, and activism. Character-driven and brilliant, Eat the Document is an important and revelatory novel about the culture of rebellion, with particular resonance now.
- National Book Awards
Lives in the aftermath of 1970s radicalism form the basis of Spiotta's follow-up to her debut, Lightning Field. We meet Mary Whittaker as she goes underground and tests out a series of new names for herself in a motel room. Flash forward to the 21st century, where Mary, now "Caroline," is a single mother whose teenage son, Jason, seems to have inherited her restlessness. (Jason checks into the narrative via his journal entries.) Mary's partner in subversion and in bed was Bobby DeSoto, who, now closing in on 50 and going by the name of Nash, runs a leftist bookstore called Prairie Fire for his friend Henry, a troubled Vietnam vet. The unspoken affection between Henry and Nash and the many nuances of their deep friendship, beautifully rendered by Spiotta, give the book a compelling core. A young woman named Miranda becomes the improbable object of Nash's skittish affection. And when Jason begins to discover bits of his mother's past, Mary begins to resurface-with possibly disastrous results. As plot lines entangle, Spiotta tightens the narrative and shortens the chapters, which doesn't really add tension or pace. The result is a very spare set of character studies not well-enough served by the resolution. A near miss. (Feb.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 06, 2006
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Excerpt from Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta
IT IS EASY for a life to become unblessed.
Mary, in particular, understood this. Her mistakes ' and they were legion ' were not lost on her. She knew all about the undoing of a life: take away, first of all, your people. Your family. Your lover. That was the hardest part of it. Then put yourself somewhere unfamiliar, where (how did it go ) you are a complete unknown. Where you possess nothing. Okay, then ' this was the strangest part ' take away your history, every last bit of it.
She discovered, despite what people may imagine, having nothing to lose is a lot like having nothing. (But there was something to lose, even at this point, something huge to lose, and that was why this unknown, homeless state never resembled freedom.)
The unnerving, surprisingly creepy and unpleasantly psychedelic part ' you lose your name.
Mary finally sat on a bed in a motel room that very first night after she had taken a breathless train ride under darkening skies and through increasingly unfamiliar landscape. Despite her anxiety she still felt lulled by the tracks clicking at intervals beneath the train; an odd calm descended for whole minutes in a row until the train pulled into another station and she waited for someone to come over to her, finger-pointing, some unbending and unsmiling official. In between these moments of near calm and all the other moments, she practiced appearing normal. Only when she tried to move could you notice how shaky she was. That really undid her, her visible unsteadiness. She tried not to move.
Five state borders, and then she was handing over the cash for the room ' anonymous, cell-like, quiet. She clutched her receipt in her hand, stared at it, September 15, 1972, and thought, This is the first day of it. Room Twelve, the first place of it.
Even then, behind a chain lock in the middle of nowhere, she was double-checking doors and closing curtains. Showers were impossible; she half-expected the door of the bathroom to push in as she stood there unaware and naked. Instead of sleeping she lay on the covers, facing the door, ready to move. Showers and bed, nakedness and sleep ' she felt certain that was how it would happen, she could visualize it happening. She saw it in slow motion, she saw it silently, and then she saw it quickly, in double time, with crashes and splintered glass. Haven't you seen the photos of Fred Hampton's mattress She certainly had seen the photos of Fred Hampton's mattress. They'd all seen them. She couldn't remember if the body was still in the bed in the photos, but she definitely remembered the bed itself: half stripped of sheets, the dinge stripe and seam of the mattress exposed and seeped with stains. All of it captured in the lurid black-and-white Weegee style that seemed to underline the blood-soak and the bedclothes in grabbed-at disarray. She imagined the bunching of sheets in the last seconds, perhaps to protect the unblessed person on the bed. Grabbed and bunched not against gunfire, of course, but against his terrible, final nakedness.
"Cheryl," she said aloud. No, never. Orange soda. "Natalie." You had to say them aloud, get your mouth to shape the sound and push breath through it. Every name sounded queer when she did this. "Sylvia." A movie-star name, too fake sounding. Too unusual. People might actually hear it. Notice it, ask about it. "Agnes." Too old. "Mary," she said very quietly. But that was her real name, or her original name. She just needed to say it.