This is the first book review I’ve written in nearly three years, since I hung up my reviewing socks following a stint at Publishers Weekly’s online division, where I was paid handsomely in American currency to review books about sports and music. Those books were assigned to me based on a rough affinity for the subject matter. I liked baseball and Phil Spector music and funny writing, so I was assigned books about baseball, Phil Spector and the music industry, naturally.
Despite my purported interest in the subject matter, however, I often disliked the books assigned to me. Perhaps this was a residual effect of years of assigned reading at school. These books, looming over my reading list like a colonoscopy, found me angry and tired. Still, I gave them a fair shake. A few rose above to really impress me. Others offered diversion or momentary entertainment before lapsing into unrelenting mediocrity. Several were nearly too dreadful to finish.
When I reviewed books, I tried to find their best qualities first. To do so, I often imagined a book’s ideal reader. Every book, after all, has its intended audience, and maybe an underemployed, poorly paid book reviewer wasn’t it. Perhaps somebody else, someone with a different background and no taste, might find merit in a memoir about the early days of off-shore gambling. Stranger things have come to pass. Still, it seems rare that a book finds it ideal reader, and rarer still that said reader is also in a position to write a long and self-referential review of it.
Occasionally, though, God reaches down and places the right book in the right reader’s hands. Such a moment occurred a few weeks ago when I received a new book in the mail. In this particular scenario, however, God was a New York publicist named Kate.
This prelude exists largely to explain why you might not like Richard Rushfield’s memoir Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost as much as I did. You might not be able to access its bleak, wintry setting. Perhaps the events of the narrative, the college experiences of the wayward young Rushfield, won’t appeal to you. If so, I understand. Maybe you went to a state school.
On the face of it, Richard Rushfield and I are not that similar. I went to a competitive academic school in the late 1990s while Rushfield toiled (figuratively) at weirder-than-thou Hampshire College in the 1980s. I made friends relatively easily and dragged myself to class with frequency. Rushfield joined an infamous band of outsiders, The Supreme Dicks, eventually achieving full pariah status in only a few years. And yet, of all the people in the world who might read this book, none would enjoy it as much as I. For one thing, I love campus literature. My favorite novel is Lucky Jim, and my favorite Updike story is “The Christian Roommate.” I also enjoy books whose characters simply can’t get out of their own way. Toby Young (who blurbed this book, I notice) wrote an excellent memoir in much this fashion, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. There’s just something about people lighting themselves on fire, I suppose.
Rushfield begins to self-immolate almost immediately upon setting foot on the Hampshire College campus. Located in Amherst, Massechusetts, Hampsire is part of the five college system, along with Amherst, UMass, Smith and Mount Holyoke. It’s committed to alternative education, meaning it gives no grades and offers its students the opportunity to craft their own education around the subject matter that interests them. It’s this freedom that attracts him. Well, that and the promise of a single room.
Hindered in part by his aversion to marijuana, Rushfield has some difficulty navigating the social world of Hampshire, with its abundance of Hippies and “Preppy Deadheads”: students who came from elite prep schools but embraced aspects of hippie culture, such as hackysack, the Grateful Dead and dreadlocks (another term for this demographic is the Frisbee Elite). Rushfield drifts along on the periphery of the school, skipping nearly every class and living a mostly solitary life.
When he’s caught scrawling some graffiti on someone’s Bob Marley poster, he’s exiled from the dorms and forced to find a new place to live. He turns to The Supreme Dicks, the most reviled people on campus.
It’s here that the book hits its stride, finding its heroes and establishing a rich mythology that few memoirs ever achieve. One part commune, one part experimental post-punk band, The Supreme Dicks live in one of the college’s modular housing units deep in the woods. From their remote location, they operate as their own world, complete with its own philosophy, a bastardized version of the teachings of Wilhelm Reich.
Richard, it turns out, had been warned about the Dicks from the very beginning:
Back in my first week at Hampshire, Lonnie had taken me aside, in his characteristic manner that was the more terrifying for its seeming concern that he was anxious for my safety, and warned me that there was a group of evil, despicable people at the school. Horrible, dreadful, terrible, he said, spitting adjectives until he was gasping for breath. He didn’t want to scare me but he had reason to believe that these people, who called themselves “the Supreme Dicks,” might try — he kneaded my shoulder with a caring hand — might try to talk to me. You see, he continued, he had noticed that I bore a resemblance to one of them — one of their leaders who had left the school after, Lonnie went on, eyebrow arched, his brother had died…My heart raced. Weird people, with some tragic secret, will want to talk to me?
Talk to him they do, and eventually Rushfield takes refuge in their ranks. It’s there, in the woods, that he discovers that life with the Dicks is a surreal and often directionless experience. For instance, roughly thirty pages is given to describing a night when the group, hungry and cold, plots a trip to the new Denny’s two towns over. Despite a mounting panic about whether they’d have anything to eat that night, their inability to organize an expedition, even in the face of hunger pains, takes on an hallucinogenic quality, as they wander around the campus like Bedouin scavengers, looking for the path of least resistance.
To pigeonhole the Dicks as anti-hippie would be to simplify a mysterious movement, a group composed of people from across the racial, sexual and generational spectrum (several of the Dicks are approaching their second decade as Hampshire College students when the book begins). One couldn’t rightly call them nihilists, as they have a core of beliefs, what with their Reichian theories and their belief in celibacy and vegetarianism. And yet, they seem to oppose more or less everything and everyone else. And therein, I think, lies the greatness of this book.
At its heart, Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost is a memoir of opposition, of resistance. Rushfield and the Dicks position themselves as the “other” at a school that is all about embracing that which is different or marginalized, so long as that marginalization feels earned by genuine oppression. The Dicks, a mix of rich and poor, white and non, straight and gay, defy easy categorization, and unsurprisingly, meet with scorn.
That the Dicks emerge as the unlikely heroes of the book is testament to Rushfield’s storytelling abilities. He has talent for exposing the hypocrisies and idiocies of the typical Hampshire armchair revolutionary. The more the college slides further and further into left-wing, politically correct fascism, the more Rushfield and his friends seem like the voices of reason.
Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost contains many elements of the typical college narrative: the confusion of orientation, the perils of dorm life, the relationships formed and dissolved in a matter of days or hours. There’s even a ridiculously ill-conceived trip to Daytona Beach for spring break. But nothing at Hampshire happens as one would expect. Every situation is coated with a thick haze of drugs and radical politics, rendering it both familiar and foreign at the same time. The effect is a small, messy, often infuriating world, a world I nevertheless enjoyed inhabiting for a few hundred pages. By the end of the book, I found myself agreeing with the graffiti Rushfield finds in the library soon after arriving at Hampshire: “Supreme Dicks rule, OK.” But then again, they’re preaching to the choir with me.