The Dark Sixties

sway-bookSway by Zachary Lazar (Little, Brown)

Flower Power.

Ychhh? Yes.

Lame? Well, yes and no. It never would have sprouted without its dark side.

The summer of love? It wouldn't have been more than a limp slogan without the summer of hate. The drugs, the dirt, the grime, and even the gore were as much a part of the cultural revolution of the late sixties as love beads and granny glasses and macrame.

In his latest novel, Sway, Zachary Lazar turns over the verdant log and reveals the swarming maggots on the other side. And lo and behold, those maggots are even more delectable than the bright, shiny surface.

Manson. Bobby Beausoleil (beautiful sun/son?), Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, and Kenneth Anger mix in a trippy (bad-trippy?) stew -- presided over by Lucifer himself. Living people. In fiction. A hard act to pull off, which Lazar does beautifully and bravely, but the technical triumphs are not what makes this story infest your mind like it does. It's the art. The art that poses the question "how much is enough"? Is enough ever enough? The art that paints three-dimensional (four-dimensional, five-dimensional) panoramas. We feel, we see, we touch. Chekhov would have liked some of the writing here. I still feel the chill of the cold water flat that Mr. Jones, Mr. Jagger, and Mr. Richards shared when they were deconstructing Bo Diddley. And the chill of the love and hate the flowed between and amongst them. I still feel the anguish of young Kenneth Anger, his artistic visions supplanting his real visions. I still feel the deep dread that Manson harvested like poppy plants.

These feelings do not leave. Sure, the Manson ruse can be seen as a hook. But by picking on Bobby Beausoleil as the central narrative thread, twinning him with Anger (the two actually did have an encounter), we are willing participants not only in the Manson clan but in tapping into our own dark side.

I remember how reading Greil Marcus's chapter on Sly Stone in his magisterial Mystery Train made me feel unsettled. Sway explores the same madness with a fictional bravura that matches Marcus's non-fiction.

To get back to Lazar's art -- the entire book is like a long, ragged, drug-induced jam, a violent, swirling, meandering, but solidly anchored "Dark Star." It is not traditional "a plus b = c narrative." When the narrative becomes unhinged, so does the prose. When Lucifer's hand, whether in the guise of Manson or Beausoleil or Jones or Anger, holds forth, the tone becomes chilly and steel.

A dark -- welcomed -- journey. Or, should I say, antidote. - Ken Krimstein

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Mr. Krimstein is a writer, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in New York City. So there.