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Will the Circle Be Unbroken! (Jan. 30, 2002)

Max Crawford’s latest novel is called “Wamba.” According to the flier announcing it: “After years away, Roy Alan Richardson has come home to western Texas to grapple with the demons that haunt him. Most of all, he has returned to reckon with his mother, Wamba…. In a tale filled with startling imagery and twists of phrase, Crawford mulls over numerous subjects. Memory, and the derangement of memory.”

Crawford’s a very good writer whose memory, given the quality of his work, doesn’t seem to have suffered much from derangement, even though objective reality is more deranged by the day, which is why I wrote to him a few years ago to ask him how he came to write “The Bad Communist,” published in 1979, his third novel. “The Bad Communist” quickly became a kind of underground hit, especially among the thousands of bad communists who, by ‘79, were well into neo-respectability, or negotiating with the government to at least get pointed in the direction of neo-respectability.

The author wrote back to say that “The Bad Communist” was pure fiction, which was itself a purely fictional statement. Max had either been a bad communist or had known a lot of bad communists. His novel had the kind of been-there specificity beyond even the very best fiction writers, not that I’m implying that the guy lacks imagination.

An enterprising publisher ought to re-issue it in paperback because the bad communists are back.

Here comes Sara Jane Olson, Patty Hearst and other literal blasts from the bad communist past. Crawford’s novel is not only directly relevant to the origins of the Symbionese Liberation Army, it’s so close to the reality of the lunatic adventures of the SLA’s immediate predecessor, Venceremos, that it can serve as a kind of prose documentary about how and why it all happened.

The Local Angle? Naturally, there’s a local angle. The bad communists, even back then, had summer homes up here, and lots of the lawyers who made their bones off the literal bones of the 60’s are still around — Susan B. Jordan of Ukiah, for one. And there are several furtive local personalities, I guess you could call them, who had ties to the lunatic left.

I know Max Crawford a little bit, having met him through Mike Koepf of Greenwood Road. Koepf appears in “The Bad Communist” in a non-speaking part as “Koepf’s Market,” and then, I believe, as the market’s parking lot. If Crawford had been writing a comic novel, Koepf might have gotten to say something.

Certainly I’ll be sternly corrected if I say that Koepf’s role in the real life adventures that inspired Crawford’s literary rendition of bad communists was not as proto-Marxist revolutionary, Palo Alto branch, but he did function as small arms instructor to a few young Stanford intellectuals then enrolled in Stanford’s famous writing program presided over by the late Wallace Stegner.

Koepf had been a combat Green Beret in Vietnam while Crawford and the Stanford writers had been in the classroom, hence Koepf’s attractiveness to them. I suppose. He still functions as a kind of R&R coordinator for some of them, including Crawford. But Koepf, as I understand it, would take the literary fantasists up into the Santa Cruz Mountains and show them how to shoot guns and, perhaps, blow things up. There were probably a thousand groups of armed doofuses running around the Bay Area at the time pretending to be Che Guevara. They’d set off pipe bombs and issue manifestos nobody except other delusionals and the FBI read, denouncing the other screwballs as insufficiently militant.

“Armed Struggle Now!” That kind of thing, as everyone else in the country replied, “Sure, but I gotta go to the dentist first and then my grandmother’s coming to visit and, well, maybe the week after, ok?”

One nut-crew even hijacked a Yellow Cab and its driver, not releasing him until he agreed to present their demand that all of San Francisco’s cabbies go on strike until “radical” prisoners were released. Given the high incidence of cab robberies at the time, most cab drivers wanted more people in jail, not fewer.

The Revolt of the rich kids was all the way over by Jonestown in ‘75, but lots of people had been hurt, murdered even, and progressive politics in America had been set back a good hundred years. But somehow, all the extreme craziness of the late 60’s and early 70’s has come to be known as “the movement,” and a whole lot of the movers of the only movement in the history of movements to move backwards, are still with us, and often pop up in the headlines like Sara Jane Olson and Patty Hearst just have.

When the Stanford Revolutionaries who inspired Max Crawford’s fine little novel got into serious, well-deserved trouble, most of them gave up revolution and blithely moved on into the good jobs in the system they’d claimed to have been committed to either destroying or changing for the better. None even said they were wrong, let alone sorry. If you wonder why the legal system is now wholly corrupt, the public schools an evil joke, social welfare systems a form of institutionalized cruelty, and a moron is president, well, the Stanford English Department, circa 1970, is as good a place as any to begin your inquiries.

Mendo Mike Koepf made his way north in the great back-to-the-land hegira of the late 1960’s, although he never was what anybody would mistake for a flower child. By the time Koepf got to Elk, he was a writer, too. He built a house on the west side of Greenwood Ridge where he’s lived ever since in a state of semi-rustic apoplexy, raging at the harmless, acid-eating dolphin worshippers ascendant in the nearby hamlet of Elk.

Elk’s Purple People, by the way, are adherents of a Hawaii-based dolphin cult called The Tara Center for Spiritual Evolution. It’s run by a smarmily cunning Englishman who wraps himself in a sheet, feeds the simple souls arrayed before him sesame seeds and mild hallucinogens, turns up the whale calls until the dope kicks in, then lays on the bullshit: “Remember the blessedness of the moment, the rising and setting of the sun over the ocean, the breath of fresh, ocean air, and the transporting experience of being with a group of wild dolphins where each person experiences themselves (sic) as Divine, healing the inner child and aligning with the Higher Self, discovering Love, Compassion, Purity and Clarity within.”

Well, now you have some idea of the magnitude of the provocation besetting the beleaguered Koepf every time he runs to the Elk Store for a fifth of reality juice. How would you like it if every time you went into town for a fifth of whisky you had shoals of bliss ninnies clawing at your inner child?

The only bad book Max Crawford has written was one he co-authored with Koepf, as it happens. It’s called “Icarus” — groan, sob, and pass the smelling salts before the rest of the cliches pile on. “Icarus” was based on the D.B. Cooper affair but manages to make an inherently fascinating story into a novel so boring that people merely walking past it have collapsed on the floor in deep slumber, and so bad even Hamilton refused to remainder it.

Todd Gitlin himself could not write a novel this bad.

Over the years, Koepf’s Elk aerie has served as a kind of hilltop literary saloon, not to be confused with a literary salon. Several well-known writers, including the late Raymond Carver, Mrs. Carver, Jim Crumley, Crawford, and a couple of other fiction writers based in Montana and Los Angeles, have often repaired to Koepf’s place on Greenwood Road to rusticate.

But long-term residence in Mendocino County can drive even the kindest person to militant misanthropy, and Koepf wasn’t Santa Claus to begin with. He, did, however, write a pretty good satire once about the first-wave Mendo loons called, “Save The Whales,” but soon afterwards ceased viewing his neighbors as amusing.

Max Crawford’s “The Bad Communist” is directly pertinent to current events. It’s about the SLA when the SLA was still known as Venceremos — not the old com-symp Venceremos known for helping Cuba with its sugar harvests — a different Venceremos, this one based at Stanford in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Mike Sweeney, who now runs a publicly-funded Mendocino County recycling program called Keep Mendocino Beautiful, belonged to Stanford Venceremos. So did Sweeney’s first wife, Cynthia Denenholtz. She’s presently a family court magistrate in Sonoma County.

The SLA was a kind of branch office of Venceremos, itself a Maoist group ubiquitous in the Bay Area around 1970. A charismatic (at least to 18-year-old college freshmen) Stanford English professor named H. Bruce Franklin held down Venceremos’s South Bay franchise. The professor’s Maoists were mostly rich kid radicals. They were about as revolutionary as their American lit teacher, who, well, he should have done some serious time but he’s another one who’s never looked back at the carnage he inspired. An old lefty friend remembers H. Bruce this way: “He’d write these long, incoherent political tracts at the same time he was writing well-researched, interesting papers on Herman Melville. It was almost like he was two people.”

Lock them both up, then.

Professor Franklin didn’t hide the fact that he was a Maoist revolutionary who stood for armed revolution right now, mommy! And I’m going to be really, really upset with you if you don’t help me overthrow the government. The professor was also for tenure, as it turned out.

But the reality in real world America back in 1972 was objectively non-revolutionary. Still is, not that objective reality ever once penetrated the altered states of political reality these people created for themselves. What had been a genuine national popular political movement for social justice beginning in the 1950’s, became a cult-dominated freak show culminating in political versions of the Manson Family. Somehow, socialist theory, based on non-coercive, cooperative sharing of resources, had turned into a movement of psychopaths, among them Professor Franklin, Mike Sweeney, Cinque, Cynthia Denenholtz, Chairman Bob Avakian, and, eventually, episodes like the Bari bombing.

H. Bruce Franklin’s Maowie-Wowie West Palo Alto revolutionaries, probably half of whom were FBI agents, became the even more murderously misguided SLA after the professor’s Stanford cadre shot and killed an unarmed 25-year-old Mexican-American transport officer to free a prison inmate as the inmate was being driven from prison to a court appearance in Bakersfield. The professor’s revolutionaries also seriously wounded the unarmed escort officer who had been driving the prison vehicle. The shootings were your basic psycho-killer executions because the prisoner was already free, the persons guarding him unarmed, no one was interfering with any of them. The two minimum-wage, unarmed transportation guys were handcuffed and shot. The Third World guy died, the other one lived, more or less. He was never quite the same, as if anybody would be after something like that. Hey! They were “pigs,” and what’s wrong with killing a pig?

The Prisoner, a fellow named Beaty, had allegedly converted, inside jail, to Stanford’s intellectually awesome interpretations of Mao-ism. Beaty had been declared a “political prisoner” by the Stanford rads, which was not exactly news to him but within a year, after he’d ratted out as many of his comrades as he could remember, he was back in jail wrapped in a snitch jacket.

Beaty was arrested after a month or so on the outs when someone within his circle of abductors alerted the police that Beaty would be driving east on the Bay Bridge at a certain time on a certain day. The three young men and one young woman who’d freed Beaty, murdered Hernandez, and had tried to murder the other prison transport guy, went to jail for a long time, although they’re probably out now and working as attorneys in the Bay Area who car pool to their country places in Mendocino County on weekends.That’s been the usual progression.

Professor Franklin was also arrested and tried for his role in the Stanford-mounted murder of Hernandez, but the government was unable to make the case against him and he was freed, after being defended by the late Charles Garry who, a few years later, would sign off on another Mendocino County man made good in the big world outside, the Reverend Jim Jones. Garry said he just couldn’t understand how such a cool social experiment had ended in a cyanide and koolaid party down in Guyana.

Stanford proceeded to fire Professor Franklin and, for a few months, it became the revolutionary duty of all true revolutionaries to protect his right to free speech and tenure: that’s free speech as in today’s free speech KPFA and free speech KZYX where there isn’t any. Venceremos collapsed, the professor moved on to a soft job at Rutgers, and the leftovers segued into the SLA, more murders, more mayhem, Sara Jane Olson, Patty Hearst, and Max Crawford’s insider’s gem of a novel, “The Bad Communist.”

With the SLA again in the news, and threatening to stay in the news — Osama willing — Crawford’s virtual prose documentary is the best thing in print on that odd time, a time still with us in the form of the Bari Bombing case, the destruction of the Pacifica Network by the cult-brains, the left as a jobs program for cult-brains, the celebration of cult-think by people who ought to know better.

One Comment

  1. Nathan Duffy January 15, 2021

    Damn Bruce, mighty fine article there. Love the reminders of the kooky left because all we see now is the kooky right so people get confused. Dammit I looked for Max Crawfords “The Bad Communist” on amazon and it costs in the hundreds 2, 3 or 4 depending on the copy you want. oh well, keep reprinting your stuff, respect.

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