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.
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.