True Believers

A Novel

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The Washington Post • San Francisco Chronicle

In True Believers, Kurt Andersen—the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed author of Heyday and Turn of the Century—delivers his most powerful and moving novel yet. Dazzling in its wit and effervescent insight, this kaleidoscopic tour de force of cultural observation and seductive storytelling alternates between the present and the 1960s—and indelibly captures the enduring impact of that time on the ways we live now.

Karen Hollander is a celebrated attorney who recently removed herself from consideration for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. Her reasons have their roots in 1968—an episode she’s managed to keep secret for more than forty years. Now, with the imminent publication of her memoir, she’s about to let the world in on that shocking secret—as soon as she can track down the answers to a few crucial last questions.

As junior-high-school kids back in the early sixties, Karen and her two best friends, Chuck and Alex, roamed suburban Chicago on their bikes looking for intrigue and excitement. Inspired by the exotic romance of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, they acted out elaborate spy missions pitting themselves against imaginary Cold War villains. As friendship carries them through childhood and on to college—in a polarized late-sixties America riven by war and race as well as sex, drugs, and rock and roll—the bad guys cease to be the creatures of make-believe. Caught up in the fervor of that extraordinary and uncanny time, they find themselves swept into a dangerous new game with the highest possible stakes.

Today, only a handful of people are left who know what happened. As Karen reconstructs the past and reconciles the girl she was then with the woman she is now, finally sharing pieces of her secret past with her national-security-cowboy boyfriend and activist granddaughter, the power of memory and history and luck become clear. A resonant coming-of-age story and a thrilling political mystery, True Believers is Kurt Andersen’s most ambitious novel to date, introducing a brilliant, funny, and irresistible new heroine to contemporary fiction.

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Praise for True Believers

“Funny, fiendishly smart.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“A great American novel.”—Vanity Fair
“A big, swinging novel . . . [a] colorful story . . . This could be the most rambunctious meeting your book club will have for a long time.”—The Washington Post
“Intelligent and insightful . . . Think The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Atonement, a ’60s-era female Holden Caulfield. . . . Andersen is an agile storyteller. . . . [There are] witty, occasionally even profound observations about the ’60s and today.”—USA Today
“So epic: Part thriller, part coming-of-age tale, the novel alternates between the present and the 1960s, capturing some of America’s most pivotal moments in history like a time capsule.”—Marie Claire
“This is an ambitious and remarkable novel, wonderfully voiced, about memory, secrets, guilt, and the dangers of certitude. Moreover, it asks essential questions about what it means to be an American and, in a sense, what it means to be America.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Fascinating and wisely observant.”—O: The Oprah Magazine

Under the Cover

An excerpt from True Believers




My publishers signed me up a year ago to write a book, but not this book. “A candid and inspirational memoir by one of the most accomplished leaders and thinkers of our times,” their press release promised. They think they’re getting a slightly irreverent fleshing out of my shiny curriculum vitae, a plainspoken, self-congratulatory chronicle of A Worthy Life in the Law and the Modern Triumph of American Women, which they’re publishing, ho-hum premise notwithstanding, because I’ve written a couple of best sellers and appear on TV a lot.

By far the most interesting thing about my life, however, is nowhere in my résumé or official bio or Wikipedia entry. I’m not exactly who the world believes I am. Let me cut to the chase: I once set out to commit a spectacular murder, and people died.

But it’s not a simple story. It needs to be unpacked very carefully. Like a bomb.

Trust me, okay?

I am reliable. I am an oldest child. Highly imperfect, by no stretch a goody-goody. But I was a reliable U.S. Supreme Court clerk and then a reliable Legal Aid lawyer, representing with all the verve and cunning I could muster some of the most pathetically, tragically unreliable people on earth. I have been a reliable partner in America’s nineteenth largest law firm, a reliable author of four books, a reliable law professor, a reliable U.S. Justice Department official, a reliable law school dean. I’ve been a reliable parent—as trustworthy a servant, teacher, patron, defender, and worshipper of my children as anyone could reasonably demand, and I think on any given day at least one of the two of them would agree.

I was not an entirely reliable wife for the last decade of my marriage, although my late ex, during our final public fight, called me “reliable to a goddamned fault,” which is probably true. And which may be why the surprising things I did immediately afterward—grabbing his BlackBerry out of his hand and hurling it into a busy New York street, filing for divorce, giving up my law firm partnership, accepting a job that paid a fifth as much, moving three thousand miles away—made him more besotted by me than he’d ever seemed before. As my friend Alex said at the time, “That’s funny—telling Jack Wu ‘Fuck you’ finally made him really want to fuck you.”

I am reliable, but I’m not making the case that reliability is the great human virtue. Nor am I even making the case that reliability is my great virtue. In fact, after four decades in the law, I’ve lost my animal drive for making cases for the sake of making cases, for strictly arguing one of two incompatible versions of the truth, for telling persuasive stories by omitting or twisting certain facts.

So I am not arguing a case here. I’m not setting out to defend myself any more than I am to indict myself. I’m determined to tell something like the whole truth—which, by the way, I don’t believe has ever been done in any American court of law. To tell the whole truth in a legal case would require a discovery process and trial that lasted years, hundreds of witnesses each testifying for many weeks apiece, and rules of evidence rewritten to permit not just hearsay and improperly obtained information but iffy memories of certain noises and aromas and hallucinatory hunches, what a certain half-smile or drag on a cigarette decades ago did or didn’t signify during some breathless three a.m. conversation.

In any event, for the purposes of this book, I am extremely reliable. I have files. Since long before I went to law school, for half a century now—half a century!—I’ve saved every diary and journal, every letter I ever received, catechism worksheets, term papers, restaurant receipts, train schedules, ticket stubs, snapshots, Playbills. At the beginning, my pack-ratting impulse was curatorial, as if I were director of the Karen Hollaender Museum and Archive. I know that sounds narcissistic, but when I was a kid, it seemed like a way to give the future me a means of knowing what the past and perpetually present me was actually like. Prophylactic forensics, you could say.

My memory has always been excellent, but the reason I’m telling my story now is also about maximizing reliability: I’m old enough to forgo the self-protective fibs and lies but still young enough to get the memoir nailed down before the memories begin disintegrating.

Only one in a hundred people my age suffer dementia, and the Googled Internet is like a prosthetic cerebral cortex and hippocampus, letting us subcontract sharpness and outsource memory. But after sixty-five? Atrocious: the incidence of neurodegenerative disease increases tenfold during that decade, and it’s worse for women. I turn sixty-five next May.

So, anyhow, here’s my point: I am a reliable narrator. Unusually reliable. Trust me.

- About the author -

Kurt Andersen is the bestselling author of Evil GeniusesFantasyland and the novels True Believers, Heyday andTurn of the Century, among other books. He contributes to The New York Times and was host and co-creator of Studio 360, the Peabody Award–winning public radio show and podcast. He also writes for television, film, and the stage. Andersen co-founded Spy magazine, served as editor in chief of New York, and was a cultural columnist and design critic for Time, New York and The New Yorker. He graduated from Harvard College and lives in Brooklyn.

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— Published by Random House Trade Paperbacks —