Mike Bond's Semi-fictional Look at the Fifties and Sixties



America, Volume I  (2021)

By Mike Bond

Big City Press, 383 pages.





Is innocence a good thing? I suppose it depends on how you measure what we choose to ignore. America, Volume I is as advertised, a fictional waltz through the decades after World War II through the late 1960s. Mike Bond’s twist is to focus his tale on two boys and two girls as they come of age in a nation quite different from that of their childhood. (It is the first of a planned multi-volume saga.)


A simplistic–and wildly inaccurate­–take is that the United States went from victory culture and world leadership in the ‘50s to a nation divided in the ‘60s by radicals, hippies, and protesters. In said view, the 1950s were a values-centered golden age, and the 1960s one in which permissiveness, disrespect, and chaos ruined the country. An alternative view is it the ‘60s tackled real problems previously swept under the rug: racism, sexism, poverty, cultural sterility, and eco-degradation – not to mention an inane Cold War.


The first part of Bond’s novel, though set in New Jersey, riffs off of Huckleberry Finn. y. Troy, whose father died in the war against Japan, hates the Catholic orphanage where he is housed. The priests are sadistic, the place is like a prison, and he's a frequent runaway. In one of his leave-taking sojourns, he meets Mick, a Tom Sawyer-like risk-taker. He and Troy hit it off, but Troy is caught and returned to the orphanage. In another attempt, he and Mick meet again and decide to run away to Florida. They have many harrowing adventures and it would have been worse had they not met two African-American tramps, Joe and Molly, who shared their food and showed them how to hop trains. Eventually though, they abandon their quixotic quest and Mick's father brings them back to New Jersey. He and his wife decide that Troy can live with them, and he becomes the brother Mick never had, though he has a sister named Tara. As part of the extended O'Brien clan, Troy is as focused and goal-driven as Mick is carefree and careless. The O'Briens live on a farm and are both down-to-earth and earthy. Dad is self-reliant and distrusts authority, Mom is kind, and various relatives pop in and out to flesh out a 1950s panorama. Despite their suspicions, the O'Briens believe in the American Dream and are deeply patriotic.


Filmmaker Michael Apted (from Aristotle) once said, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will you the man.” He didn't say girl and woman, but he should have. Troy, Mick, Tara, and Mick’s girl crush Daisy fall into Apted’s category. Readers may find the first part of Bond’s novel the least realistic. The O'Briens and Troy talk as if they are indeed from Twain’s Missouri; their speech is certainly not like any New Jersey dialect I’ve ever heard. I don't agree with Bond’s linguistic strategy, but he is setting us up for loss of innocence. At one point, Dad remarks, “religion causes wars." Call it folk wisdom or a political screed, but religion takes it on the chin in the book. And so does the cherished myth that hard work pays off. I don't wish to disclose too much, but I will say if there's a reason you don't hear much about small farmers in New Jersey anymore.


To return to the idea that personalities are formed early, Mick, who hates school, nonetheless does well without studying much. He remains addicted to danger, just like the kid who jumped from railroad trestles, got close to venomous copperheads, and drove fast cars. Troy, who romanticizes his dead father, wishes to enlist in the military. Tara, a rebel at early age, will go to UCal Berkeley, and if you know history, you will recognize it is a place where conformity was on the outs. Daisy will also wend her way through trials and transformations.


Bond salts the novel with the events of the day. The assassination of President Kennedy was, for many, a turning point. Mick observes, “Like a walking cadaver, America carried on in a stunned, hollow and bereaved world …. Sorrow remained but fury grew." We read of other traumas: civil rights unrest, the murder of icons, Mississippi Freedom Summer, drugs, etc. If the first part of the book is about innocence, the last part is the death thereof.


The novel is equal parts fascinating and uneven. It's a bit like Mick in that it's philosophical yet opinionated. Bond has given himself an ambitious task and there is a decided tonal change from the folksy quasi-Twain opening chapters and the historical whirlwind of the last part of the novel. It's an open question as to whether this shift is too mechanistic. I suspect, though, the crux lies in Bond’s choice quote from Nietzsche: “To the extent an ideal has been falsely worshiped, reality has been robbed of his value, its meaning and its truth."


Rob Weir

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