Christopher Sorrentino

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Christopher Sorrentino’s 1995 debut, Sound on Sound, presented a kaleidoscopic view of one night–the night of President Reagan’s first inauguration–in the life of a particularly bad New York bar band. Structurally chaotic and disorienting, the novel explored territory similar to that of Sorrentino’s father, prolific experimentalist Gilbert Sorrentino, but with his second book, Trance, a creative retelling of the Patty Hearst story, the son stakes out his own turf. Part historical fiction, part noirish satire, Trance weighs in at more than 500 pages; both its size and the density of its prose reminded me immediately of Don DeLillo’s Libra or Underworld. And Sorrentino’s characters, in true DeLillo fashion, sometimes come across less like humans and more like robots acting at the behest of the author’s peculiar vision. But Sorrentino manages a trick DeLillo has never quite pulled off. In the end, it’s actually the characters that resonate.

The plot is well-known: members of a left-wing cadre calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnap newspaper heiress Patty Hearst from her Berkeley apartment. Within a few months the missing girl is calling herself Tania (after Che Guevara’s lover), declaring her allegiance to her captors’ vague revolutionary cause, sticking up a bank, and posing for photographs brandishing an automatic weapon. Most of the real SLA members appear in Trance (most of them were also dead within a year of the group’s founding), but Hearst is represented by the fictional surrogate Alice Galton.

“I’m Tania Galton,” she cheekily tells the driver of a car she and her comrades, General Field Marshal Teko and his wife, Yolanda, have commandeered following a shoot-out that mirrors the infamous real-life incident at Mel’s Sporting Goods in LA. It’s a hair-raising beginning, and throughout subsequent scenes of mayhem, as the three flee the cops, switching cars every 15 minutes or so, with Teko and Yolanda bickering the entire time, what comes across most clearly is the glee Tania takes in her own notoriety: there’s a “High Noon aspect” to the episode, Sorrentino notes, that gives her a thrill.

The three never make it back to their comrades; instead they watch from a motel room as the rest of the SLA burn to death on live TV following a shoot-out with the LAPD. The trio head back to the Bay Area in search of sympathizers to facilitate a dive underground, hooking up eventually with Guy Mock, a sportswriter and radical whose corollary in the real world is the late Jack Scott, who helped smuggle Hearst and Bill and Emily Harris across the country in 1974. Mock arranges a summer hideaway for the fugitives in rural Pennsylvania, but his motives are less than pure: he wants (as Scott did) to write the exclusive tell-all book on the group.

In Sorrentino’s neatly satiric telling the SLA in exile are hapless fish out of water, biding their time in a disused country farmhouse. But throughout–and particularly in a pointed, painfully funny set piece at a resort for Jewish retirees–Tania remains the star of her own movie, entranced by her own fame. Her self-awareness humanizes her, allowing the reader to develop a degree of empathy without which Trance would be nothing more than slightly bent historical fiction.

Teko and Yolanda, on the other hand, are nothing but caricatures, screaming revolutionary jargon. After a time they grow weary of the farmhouse and make moves to head back to the Bay Area, while Mock becomes ever more fascinated with Tania. By the end of the summer his book project’s pretty much dead, but he feels he’s watched the girl grow up: she’s thinking for herself, and little of her former bluster remains. All the while Mock’s travails–his failing marriage, his hilarious and unsuccessful attempts to interest various New York agents and publishers in his book proposal–serve to flesh out his character. He becomes the sole voice of reason in an increasing cacophony, and in a way the very center of the book.

After he helps the group get back to the west coast, he can’t seem to fully rid himself of his obsession with Tania. Arguing that after all he went through he ought to get something for his trouble, he tells Hank Galton, publisher of the San Francisco Examiner, that he might be able to put him in contact with his abducted daughter–for a price. They meet numerous times, but no deal ever materializes. At their final sit-down in a San Francisco restaurant–under surveillance by FBI agents a couple tables away–Mock realizes the deal will never happen, his thoughts rendered by Sorrentino in a deft stream: “War over, Nixon out, and all the wind basically went out of the sails of the movement. Stands to reason that a zany little twerp like [Teko] would be the last man on deck.

“Not to mention every young grease monkey, factory worker, and warehouseman now was as hirsute as, now was taking the same drugs as, now was listening to the same sort of music as every hippie, radical, and hanger-on from Bloomfield Hills, Brentwood, and Great Neck. Even the cops had mustaches and long hair . . . the People had been won over after all. Suddenly the Left felt the fear, seized up with those old class prejudices. . . . These were the People?”

Mock writes a $20,000 figure on a napkin, then goes to the bathroom, where he lays the “most gigantic log he believes he’s ever produced.” This isn’t the end of the book, but it should have been. With Mock’s failure, Sorrentino makes his central metaphor clear: Mock embodies our romance with celebrity, echoing both Tania’s fascination with herself, and the money-grubbing self-interest that guides our day-to-day. It’s a dynamic that doomed the SLA from the beginning and that neutered the radical politics of the day into radical chic, the transforming power of the former diluted by the pull of the latter. No character in Trance illustrates this conflict better than Mock. And yet at the same time, Mock is human–his impulses make psychological sense. And when the FBI closes in on Tania, Teko, Yolanda, and the new recruits they’ve managed to scare up, it’s Mock’s end you wonder about, it’s Mock you miss the most.