Book Review: Gates of Eden by Charles Degelman
Historical narratives are becoming more common in popular media. Besides three major cinema treatments of Abraham Lincoln this year and “Django Unchained” (set in the years right before the Civil War), a smorgasbord of historical fiction has arrived to reflect on the Sixties – in reaction, perhaps, to the contemporary Occupy saga.
Of the titles to arrive since 2007′s “Across the Universe”, Charles Degelman’s Gates of Eden stands out as one of the best. Degelman’s expansive novel hooks readers from its first pages and carries them through a sprawling narrative across geographical, racial, and socioeconomic boundaries to reach a nearly encyclopedic coverage of the issues which upended so much of American culture during the sixties: war, race, sex, direct action, and of course, drugs. Following a “hyperlink” story structure and a brisk pace, Gates of Eden provides a breathtaking bird’s-eye view of the Sixties’ cultural zeitgeist through the perspective of characters worth caring about.
The plot follows the adventures of a gaggle of young men and women coming of age in a tumultuous time, as they each get caught up in the swirl of events in their own way. Eventually each character steps into his or her totemic role: the Vietnam veteran, the Mississippi Freedom Rider, the SDS organizer, the Rolling Stone writer who interviews Dylan. But Degelman rescues his protagonists from caricature status by investing them with small, touching details to humanize and round them out.
Being a story about the Sixties, Gates of Eden of course covers issues of drug use and the use of cannabis in particular. One of the many exotic locales the characters discover is a pot-growing, free-love commune in Humboldt County where hippies trip freely on LSD; and the elevation of joint smoking to a social and countercultural trope is explored as well.
Overall, Charles Degelman’s Gates of Eden represents an audacious attempt which largely succeeds: a complex, sprawling odyssey across the cultural backdrop of a contentious time, an immersive exploration of a time and many places, alongside characters worth caring about. This is an excellent book for anyone who wants to better understand a period in US history critical to shaping the warlike drug policies of today.
By: Jeremy Daw