ArtsATL > Books > In Jonathan Lerner’s “Alex Underground,” a reckless quest for justice and sexual identity

In Jonathan Lerner’s “Alex Underground,” a reckless quest for justice and sexual identity

“Alex Underground”

By Jonathan Lerner

226 pages. penpowerpublishing, 2009.

There was a time in writer Jonathan Lerner’s life, in the early 1970s, when he fervently believed that he and his band of fellow student guerrillas in the Weather Underground would topple the U.S. government, write a new constitution and bring about a Communist revolution. Lerner, one of the founding members of the militant group, tried unsuccessfully to build a bomb. He admits that, at his most crazed extreme, he would have easily lobbed one onto an Army base if someone had given him the technical ability.

The rage of suburban, middle-class kids like Lerner against America sprang from their discovery that it was not the flawless egalitarian, democratic society it made itself out to be. The civil rights movement made clear ugly racism. Feminists uncovered sexism. And the draft turned a magnifying glass on the morality of the war in Vietnam. American youth became the enraged conscience of a nation. The Weathermen, an extremist faction that took over the more benign Students for a Democratic Society, which had chapters spread across American colleges, crusaded for social justice via a Communist coup.

Lerner’s second novel, “Alex Underground,” plays out against this tumultuous era of American history. Alex and his comrade-in-arms, Doug, members of the fictitious Raucous Caucus, instigate a violent incident on campus, then run away to evade arrest. Eventually they flee to Canada, take a ship to Castro’s Cuba, toil in the hot sun for a couple of months in homage to the Communist ideal, then make their way to a decaying Havana. Here, too, begins Alex’s personal quest as a repressed gay man desperate to uncork his homosexuality, deeply in love with his charismatic straight friend.

When he and Doug separate for security reasons, Alex is bereft of the object of his passions and the novel’s emotional core dissolves. Alex’s solitary travels through Europe see him struggling to reckon with his sexual identity, a fugitive turning tricks for a few dollars, picking up men in grungy bars and restrooms. He always has his eye on the money, and it’s hard not to feel more repugnance than sympathy for his situation. Soon enough, his unease turns to a voracious, omnivorous hunger for sex that he compares to an addictive drug.

Lerner, a well-known Atlanta writer on art and design, self-published “Alex Underground” when mainstream publishers intimated that the “gay novel” was dead. Though the story feels like a rough cut — fragmentary, jumping abruptly in time and circumstance — there are enough interesting observations about youth, sex, politics and the fervid idealism and destructiveness of the ’70s to provoke one to think about how America and oneself have come from there to here.

Below is an excerpt from my recent conversation with Lerner.

PKH: You were a founding member of the Weather Underground. Your novel is about two youth revolutionaries who are on the lam in Cuba, and then in Europe, after inciting a campus riot. How much of the novel is autobiographical and which parts are truest to your own story?

Jonathan Lerner: The novel isn’t about the Weather Underground. It’s about the broader culture of resistance, or outlaw culture, or however you want to describe it. Some parts of the story are very similar to mine. I did go to Cuba in early 1970 on a solidarity brigade. I just went ’cause it was something that was happening. Hundreds of people were doing these brigades [that took place] once or twice a year for about five years. When I went it was right at the point when the Weathermen organization was going underground. There were federal indictments that came down against the Weatherpeople while I was in Cuba. Like Alex, I was an “unindicted co-conspirator,” and like Alex, I didn’t really know what that meant. It actually doesn’t mean anything — it means you might have been part of a conspiracy, but the government has chosen not to prosecute you.

PKH: What was the conspiracy?

Jonathan Lerner: That was an indictment for a conspiracy to riot during the Days of Rage, which was a big series of demonstrations that the Weather organization organized in Chicago in October of 1969. Anyway, I did go to Cuba, and the Cubans did send me and several people to Europe. And we did have the same idea that the guys in the book have, which is to go and see if we could find false IDs so that we could come back to this country already underground. The experience of hustling is also mine.

PKH: When you got back to the U.S., were you part of the underground again?

Jonathan Lerner: Yes, there were four of us and we came back underground. We were underground for about a year, but we had actually lost contact with the Weather organization, having been in Cuba. The places that we had arranged that there would be a message, there wasn’t a message. That kind of thing. Then sort of by accident we ran into some people from the Weather Underground. They knew what the legal situation was, and at that point they explained to me that I didn’t have any reason to be underground. There wasn’t any actual charge against me. So what I did was, I resumed my own identity and became a public activist. But for the next five or six years, until the Weather Underground split apart, I was a secret member of this clandestine organization while I was a public activist organizing and raising money and carrying messages.

PKH: Public activist for what?

Jonathan Lerner: Well, the Vietnam War was still going on then. So a lot of it was anti-war stuff. I got involved in Native American work. In 1973, there was the confrontation in South Dakota at Wounded Knee. I was working on a weekly newspaper in Chicago at the time, and I went out there to cover it and ended up spending a couple of years supporting native rights movements. It took me a lot longer to figure out what I was going to do with my life, which is to be a journalist, than it took Alex. So there were a lot of years when I was thinking of myself as a full-time revolutionary.

PKH: To me, Alex didn’t seem that committed to the revolution. He was much more interested in finding himself as a gay man. He seemed much more focused on his own sexual liberation than his political cause. More interested in coming out.

Jonathan Lerner: You know, in thinking back about it, years later, I came to the conclusion that all of us who were in the underground, we had the ideology and we were anti-imperialist and revolutionaries and all that stuff — [we had] the idealism that we wanted to build a better world. But I think the reason each of us made the specific choice to get involved in such a militant, provocative way, when there were many, many different ways you could be an activist then, the reason was something more personal and psychological. That’s true of Alex. What he needed to get out of it was figuring out who he was. He came upon this nifty way of exploring his sexuality, while not really owning his sexuality. It took him a while to really own it.

PKH: What impact do think the radical left has had on American culture? Has it shaped America, and what good did it bring?

Jonathan Lerner: Well, I think it’s actually had an enormous impact for good and some not so good. All of the cultural opening that happened in the ’60s and ’70s, about sexual politics and race and the awareness of diversity, in the sense that the storyline we were all handed as kids about who was an American was a narrow definition. You could be all kind of things and be an American. I think that opening is one of the effects of the movement. (Lower photo: a recent shot of Lerner.)

There are some negative effects. In some ways, the cultural wars that are being fought now originated then. Also, I regret that the Weather Underground was one of a number of organizations here and around the world at that time that helped create the idea that terrorism is a viable thing to do. Even though in our actions the only people who were killed were three of our own people, who blew themselves up trying to make a bomb. After that we were very careful about making plans. If we bombed a place, we would phone in a warning and make sure it was a place where there wasn’t anybody present and that kind of thing. So the bombings that the Weather Underground did, subsequently, were symbolic really.

But still it was part of this very black-and-white view: we can tear things down and we can use any means we can find to do that. We hugely celebrated every time an airplane was hijacked to Cuba or wherever. People like the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is one of the progenitors of the Palestinian militant groups now — we celebrated what they were doing. I regret that, because I think it’s created this terrible situation that we all live in now. I don’t think the Weather Underground or the radical movement of the ’70s in this country can take major responsibility for that, but we’re certainly part of glorifying guerrilla activity. I think that’s regrettable. I really do. We were angriest some of the time at the people who were closest to us … people who would come only so far with us. People who might have been our comrades and friends just a few months before, we were willing to dismiss them and say, if they weren’t willing to take these ultimate risks, that they weren’t serious. We were the only serious people. It’s the same as any kind of fundamentalism — fundamentalisms that are armed and acting in a terrorist way in the world.

PKH: In the book, Alex discovers his gay identity in Cuba and later in Europe. He’s away from the U.S. and his family. Yet there’s no mention of his family, and he’s seeking connection to strangers as a hustler — later we find out there have been thousands of men in his life. Why is his family so unimportant? He doesn’t seem to give them any thought at all while he’s outside the United States.

Jonathan Lerner: I’ve wondered about that myself since I finished the book. In terms of a literary construction, the thing I really wanted to examine was the relationship between the two guys, and this unrequited love. And then how Alex goes on to explore his own sexuality. I must have been thinking — this wasn’t a conscious decision — that it doesn’t have much to do with his family. But, of course, all of our psychologies have a lot to do with our families. But there was something happening around ’69 and ’70, especially among people who were willing to take the kind of steps like Alex and Doug of going to Cuba and going underground: if you were going to be that radical, you were willing to cut your family loose. Sometimes people would even articulate it as “the bourgeois family is a drag.” And if you relate to your family, they’re just going to try to pull you back down and make you compromise. In a way you had to obliterate your family in order to force yourself to do these things that were so egregious.… It goes back to one of the cultural facts of that period of time, which was a tremendous break in communication between the generations.

PKH: The revolutionaries then had many idealistic values — they wanted to see the end of racism, imperialism, colonialism, the war. Yet, was there a moral vacuum in America at the time that allowed them to behave in amoral ways like Alex, who scams and hustles just about everyone he meets while hiding in Europe?

Jonathan Lerner: Race and the war in Vietnam were the two driving forces of the left. I think we felt when we got to high school and college and beyond that we’d been lied to. We’d been told one story about what this country was all about, and here we were perpetrating this really horrendous war. And, also, we were formed by the civil rights movement. As late as the end of the ’60s, there were still riots going on in cities, and still people losing their lives so that black people could vote. So I think we considered the establishment, or the country, to be completely corrupt morally. Why we didn’t then think that what we should do was to be more moral and more ethical, rather than to become Communist revolutionaries, I don’t know. I think it’s because we were hot-headed kids — and one is sexy and the other is not sexy. I don’t think kids think things through that well anyway, and that’s what morality insists that you do. We weren’t into subtleties. We were into everything being very binary and clear-cut and oppositional.

PKH: You didn’t have a mature leader.

Jonathan Lerner: We looked to people like Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi Minh. We read their writings and glorified them. In the Weather organization, I was on the younger end, but the people on the older end were only five or six years older than me. But, you know, nobody was out of their 20s.

PKH: What about countermovements that looked at things more peacefully?

Jonathan Lerner: There was a huge spectrum of people on the left. Many, many people were committed to nonviolence and very much following [Martin Luther] King. But we were in this more-revolutionary-than-thou frame of mind, and so willing to condemn people who wouldn’t do the things we were willing to do. We were sort of following the leadership of the more radical black organizations. We thought [about King], “well, all this was great to get the civil rights movement started, but sit-ins aren’t going to make a revolution,” and that’s what we wanted to do. There were anti-war organizations that very much wanted to have peaceful demonstrations, and were pissed off whenever we showed up and picked fights. Being on the fringe brought along with it this willingness to make these declarative statements that were condemning everybody who didn’t agree [with us] a hundred percent. It’s really depressingly familiar. It’s like al-Queda and George W. Bush: you’re either with us or you’re against us. The people who were more committed to nonviolence probably had a more self-conscious morality than we did. Whereas we thought whatever you have to do for the revolution is worth doing. If you have to rip off somebody who’s your friend, or if you have to steal or lie, it’s all justified because it’s all in the interest of making the revolution happen.

PKH: Alex turns almost eagerly to prostitution when he goes to Europe. He tries to justify it as being a means to survive for the revolution. Later he admits it was really a way of giving himself permission to come out.

Jonathan Lerner: He was a revolutionary because everybody was a revolutionary — his friend was a revolutionary — and it was cool and interesting and exciting. But, meanwhile, he had this drive to explore himself. And suddenly this idea occurred to him of how he could do it. I kind of feel that was, in one way or another, true of everybody who was involved [in the Weather Underground]. Because if you just wanted to be against the war or in favor of building a new society, there were a hundred different options you could have chosen. But the reasons you chose the one you chose had to do with what you needed to get out of it.

Talking about my own experience, I often later thought I could have done a lot of things that could have been much more creative. I was interested in theater. I’ve always been interested in art. You know, I’m a writer. I could have started a newspaper. I could have started a food co-op or a tenants’ union. There were a million things I could have done other than deciding to be an underground guerrilla. …

I do think there’s an interesting coincidence between the secrecy of being a gay person back then — the necessary secrecy — and the secrecy of the clandestine organization. I was actually very good at what we used to call “clandestine practice,” you know, my trade craft. The things that keep you from getting caught, like being able to remember codes or get to a meeting without being followed, and also maintain several fictitious stories about yourself at the same time. I was very good at it. I think the reason I was good at it was that I had gone all the way through adolescence before Stonewall ever happened — I was 21 when Stonewall happened and I wasn’t out. [Stonewall was a conflict between police and patrons in a New York City gay bar in June 1969 that is considered the birth of the gay rights movement.]

I had learned, without knowing I was learning it, how to hide and cover my tracks, and how to manage a duplicitous exterior. So for me personally there was an interesting overlay of those two [secrecies]. I didn’t have to be a hustler to figure out how to have sex with men — most men do it without going this complicated way. But why did I do it? Maybe secrecy and hiding was something I already felt I had a knack for.

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