Volume 74, Number 37 | January 19 -25, 2005


Notebook

Joel Agee’s trip

By Andrei Codrescu

They say about the ’60s, “If you remember them you weren’t there,” but that isn’t exactly accurate. What people mean to say is that some of the experiences they had then were indescribable. It is possible, for instance, to remember becoming a cauldron of emotions or a quiver full of thoughts that ended up piercing you in every soft part of your body during an acid trip, or the texture of a day spent yammering with your brilliant pals in a crash pad plastered with psychedelic posters or the bracing feeling of being hit on the head with a nightstick by a mounted policeman at an antiwar demonstration. But it’s impossible to describe those things vividly enough for anyone who wasn’t there.

Writers of my generation have always bemoaned the lack of a single book capable of capturing the decade significantly. There are many books that can give veterans flashbacks, such as Tom Wolfe’s book on Ken Kesey, or Kesey’s own novels, Tom Robbins’ magical mushroom sentences, Richard Brautigan’s Peter-Pannish heroes, Ed Sanders’ reports from Hades or Lenore Kandel’s patchouli-suffused orgy chants. But there is no single book that, like the Bible, contains both veteran flashback inducement and novice immersion.

Now here is a book that comes close: “In the House of My Fear,” by Joel Agee. Joel Agee, the son of the famed Depression-era writer James Agee, was raised in East Germany by his mother and stepfather, a well-known East German writer. Joel’s half-brother Stefan was a precocious schizophrenic genius who committed suicide at the height of the hippie age, after searching unsuccessfully for spiritual illumination from gurus and teachers. Joel followed his brother’s search for enlightenment with an intensity made possible only by the zeitgeist of a crazy time when psychedelics had created a huge thirst for God in young people.

The miserable war-waging society of dull squares that fought the young in the ’60s made the whole God-seeking enterprise heroic. In Joel Agee’s case, it certainly was. Determined to live in a communal household of people powered by spiritual principles, Joel runs through innumerable quasi-tragic, when not comic, trials along the nomad trails of the ’60s. At some point in London, abandoned by his sensible but devoted wife and his beloved daughter, Joel becomes God. Given this weighty job, he stays awake for months for fear that if he falls asleep the world will crumble.

Written from the shore of sanity, the book dives fearlessly back into the Rimbaudlian hells and the Blakean ecstasies and brings back what is almost the account of the ’60s we so long bemoaned the lack of.

I say “almost” because the ’60s were as unique as fingerprints when you fail to describe them, but as communal as a sauna when you recall. Agee writes uniquely, succeeds communally, and leaves the mystery still calling.

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