I first heard of Deb Olin Unferth when my grad school professor, Victoria Redel, read us the awesome story “Deb Olin Unferth.” You can check out an animated reading here. I next encountered her work when her novel, Vacation, came out (she has a collection of short stories out, too–Minor Robberies–which I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading–it’s on my list). I loved Vacation, as evidenced by my extremely gushy post on it. When it came time to invite writers to contribute to Underwater New York‘s collaboration last year with Significant Objects, Deb was at the top of our list and, much to our delight, she said yes. She wrote a short-short called The Diplomat for us, based on a plastic flute we found during an excursion to Dead Horse Bay, and read it at our Bryant Park reading, as well as our appearance at Pratt Institute’s Writers Forum. All of this goes to show that Deb, like her writing, is awesome.
Her newest book is a memoir entitled Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Joined the War. It is about the year that she was eighteen and joined her boyfriend, George, in his Christian beliefs and desire to foment a revolution in Latin America. After several failed attempts in other countries, they wind up in Nicaragua with the Sandinistas. I link to the wikipedia page here because I didn’t really learn exactly what the Sandinistas were all about from this book. I mean, I did learn something about them, but more so I learned about the evolution and devolution of this relationship, of this person. But even that wasn’t what made the biggest impression here. What did? THE WRITING.
My very favorite sentence in Revolution come from the section called “Job,” in which Deb and George land their first revolution job at an orphanage. Check this out, from page 31: “A detachment of orphans raveled themselves around my legs.” Another writer would have been concerned with telling us the ages and genders of these orphans, about the color of their eyes and their dirty knees, about her favorite orphan, the one she bonded with, the life she imagined for her. Deb’s concern here, though, is evocation, tone, language. A detachment–who has ever heard that word used like that? Have I ever even heard that word used at all? And they didn’t wind around her legs–they RAVELED. The sentences in this book are clear, precise and singular. Every word is considered.
Time, though, is as convoluted as the sentences are crystalline. The narrative does not advance chronologically, but bounces between the past, the nearer past, the more distant past, the present. Although it is not linear, it is not confusing–the book advances in short sections, bursts of story, and serves to show us that the finite experience of this year in the revolution has infiltrated all that has come after and even what came before.
Revolution is an exciting example of what a memoir can be, and even better, what sentences can be.