Days of Smoke, my latest novel from Concord ePress, takes place in Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1968. Though a half-century in the past, 1968 is stil though of as a year in which, for a brief moment, political change seemed possible if not probable. That might well have been the case, but it was also a year in which the media and other commercial and corporate concerns, cognisant of the cultural drift, began in earnest to co-opt the counter culture, profiting from it while neutralising any radical edge it might have once briefly possessed. Although the Summer of Love had come and gone, young people in 1968 were still flocking to Haight Street in San Francisco and the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, seeking that previously forbidden elixir of drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll. Yet the optimism of the previous year had already drained away, replaced by hardened attitudes and street-level confrontations. There was, to quote Dylan, music in the cafes…and revolution in the air, but with the Panthers, Yippies and Diggers pushing for political change, slogans like Make love, not war, and Turn on, Tune in and Drop out, were quickly discarded in favour of in-your-face declarations like Off the Pig, Free Huey, Bring the War Home and Eldridge For President. As for those once polymorphously perverse streets, they were becoming increasingly the province of drug casualties, dealers, homeless teenagers, disgruntled black youths, vets bearing the mental scars of the war, sexual predators, charlatans, bikers and lumpen weekenders.
It’s this dark side of 1968 that Days of Smoke attempts to recapture. In a sense, the year itself could be said to be the protagonist of the novel. At least in so far as how the forces at work in that year impinge on the novel’s two main characters, Mike Howard and Connie Myles as they make their way through the wreckage, moving from Pasadena to San Francisco, on the run from the authorities, while, at the same time, negotiating what has become an increasingly paranoid existence. Anyone familiar with my previous novel, Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime, will remember a ten year old Mike Howard. In Days of Smoke, he’s nineteen and a reticent but accomplished musician who washes dishes and sometimes plays music at The Copper Kettle, a Los Angeles coffee house and music venue, based on L.A.’s one-time home of traditional music and political meeting place, the Ash Grove. To avoid the draft and ending up in Vietnam, Mike has declared himself a conscientious objector. As the novel opens, he is hoping to convince his draft board that he’s a pacifist, even though he’s not sure the term is really applicable in his case. It’s at the draft board office that he comes across Connie, employed there as a secretary despite hating the war, not to mention her co-workers. Mike has no way of knowing that on the evening of his appearance at the draft board, Connie will take his file home and set it alight. Meanwhile Mike, seeking to forget what went on earlier in the day, spends the evening consuming a cocktail of vodka and marijuana, before passing out, waking up to find his beloved Kettle has also been set alight.
Though Days of Smoke revolve, for the most part, around Mike, it is, in fact, Connie’s novel. Likewise, it’s the real Connie to whom the book is dedicated. If for no other reason than the Connie-of-the-novel is how I imagined the young secretary I happened to encounter at the Pasadena draft board where I appeared in that same year to argue my case to become a conscientious objector. Some months later, awaiting the draft board’s decision- which I would never receive- I came across a news item in the local paper to the effect that a young woman working at the draft board had been arrested for destroying draft files. It happened so long ago I sometimes wonder if I simply imagined it all. Which wouldn’t have been surprising given that particular time and place. After all, back then a very thin line separated the imaginary from the real, whether on a personal or political- “all power to the imagination”- level. This, in turn, meant that, on the one hand, anything might be possible, while, on the other hand, it led to a certain naïveté regarding the dominant culture’s ability to subsume anything that might threaten its stability.
Days of Smoke attempts to depict not only the ambiance but some of that year’s events, not least being the assassination of Robert Kennedy. The book also seeks to highlight various issues under discussion at the time, from what kind of change might be possible to how best to achieve it in a consumer-driven culture. Fortunately, the novel’s misguided militant group Hard Rain is entirely fictitious, though at the time there was no shortage of similar political groups and communes, invariably led by some charismatic charlatan, the late Charles Manson being one of many, prepared to take their acolytes to the brink. All, of course, to a soundtrack of the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, Otis and Sly, their words parsed within a haze of marijuana smoke and an array of political possibilities, good, bad, and some extremely ugly. As the title implies, smoke, at the time, seemed to be everywhere: whether in the form of a pre-revolutionary joint, post-coital cigarette, fog and smog, or that which accompanied arson, incendiary devices and police tear gas. Not to mention all the smoke America created in Vietnam with its bombs, napalm or defoliants. To see through all that smoke could partly be what Days of Smoke is about. And it could also be said the book itself exists in a haze of its own: part fin d’epoch novel, part noir coming-of-age novel. Though Days of Smoke depicts the dark side and paranoia of 1968, it also hopefully recalls the passion, idealism, politics of that particular time. The cliché is if you remember the sixties you weren’t there. Although it was fifty years ago, I was there, and remember what went on all too well. Which is not to say that it doesn’t at times seem like a dream. But a dream that, despite its nightmarish side, and for the sake of those who, like the real Connie, put themselves on the line, should not be forgotten.
(a longer earlier version of this article apperared at woodyhaut.blogspot.com)