'60S Radicals Become Society's Elites in Andersen's New Novel; FICTION - BOOKS

Article excerpt

Kurt Andersen's "True Believers" turns on several fanciful conceits:

- A nerdy trio of James Bond-besotted adolescents, eventually joined by a putative Vietnam vet, transforms from role-playing faux assassins in early-'60s suburban Chicago into armed student insurrectionists in late-'60s Cambridge, Mass.

- Despite their seditious activities at Harvard, three members of the revolutionary cadre become high-profile members of the established order - a conservative think-tank denizen, a Hollywood mega-producer and a law-school professor once short-listed for the Supreme Court.

- After four decades, the lawyer, Karen Hollander, opts to write a tell-all memoir about herself and her former comrades. She's conveniently assisted by a lover who's also a covert operative.

None of this is inherently outlandish: Some upper-middle-class students did embrace the violent overthrow of the U.S. government in the 1960s, and Ivy League grads do tend to ascend to the power elite.

Andersen can (and does) cite real-world models for his protagonists in figures such as Weather Underground co-founder Bill Ayers. And spies certainly exist, though few are quite as suave, manly or coolly efficient as the agents imagined by Ian Fleming and, in apparently sincere homage, by Andersen.

In combination, however, the story lines threaten to strain our credulity, especially aspects of the characters' (and author's) 007 fixation and the deus ex machina convenience of Karen's having a lover with top-level security clearance. But Anderson ultimately manages to keep reader skepticism in reasonable check with his persuasively detailed re-creation of the 1960s and equally sharp portrait of contemporary realities.

The strengths of "True Believers" shouldn't surprise. Andersen is both the former editor of Spy magazine and the current host of the culturally astute NPR show "Studio 360. …