WNV Top Reads

Looking for America in Daniel Berrigan’s writings

The novelist Kathleen Alcott takes both the title and the spirit of her third book, America Was Hard to Find, from Berrigan. Alcott’s previous novels, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets and Infinite Home, are both elegant, contemporary stories set in extremely contained worlds. America Was Hard to Find, in contrast, stretches its limbs across two decades and two continents, plus the moon. It’s more structured than its namesake, but remains digressive and expansive, following a left-wing radical named Fay Fern and her loved ones across time and space. This includes outer space; Alcott’s history deviates very slightly from ours, and in her world, the first man on the moon was not Neil Armstrong but the fictional Vincent Kahn, Fay’s onetime lover and the father of her only child.

Vincent and Fay work as foils, as do Fay and her son, Wright. Through their shifting and overlapping perspectives, Alcott offers her own anti-war observation of Cold War America. She takes the political questions Berrigan lays out in America Is Hard to Find — what are the ethical limits of protest? What are the ethical limits of technology? Will citizens burning papers prevent a government from burning children? — and enacts them in slow, stylish, keenly observed prose.