REVIEW The Best Novel Never Read: Vandenberg (1971) by Oliver Lange

Republished in the 1908s as Defiance, Oliver Lange’s Vandenberg is a lot like Red Dawn but occurs in a far more feminized, post-invasion America.

And keep in mind: this was written in 1971.

imageThe Soviets were enemy-one then and this novel portrays how easily they invade America due to a general lack of values amongst its population and a specific lack of leadership amongst its elected officials. The premise is that a few small skirmishes and the threat of extended violence convinces the leadership in Washington to turn over the country to the Soviets in order to avoid the pain and death of war–the implied question being, “Are some small lifestyle changes really worth dying for?”

The answer for the citizenry as well as the government is apparently, “No, it’s not.”  Washington hands the keys over to the Red Menace that has adopted a smiling face and placating assurances, and the populace offers no real resistance or rebellion because, well, Why?

There’s the rub.

Life doesn’t change much overall for Americans and the re-education commences. The eponymous protagonist, Vandenberg, is a middle-aged man living in on a New Mexico ranch with his Down’s syndrome son and avoiding it all. The country didn’t put up a fight, so why should he?

As he is rounded up for re-education at a camp in town,  however, he discovers (or, perhaps, rediscovers) that he refuses to be ruled, that he will not obey, that he doesn’t cotton to the rest of his life being lived in comfortable but forced servitude.

So he escapes back out to the New Mexico mountains where he puts together what has to be the one of the most rag-tag team of rebels ever assembled in literature. Their mission, they decide, is to fight back. Not because they think they can win, but because they choose to live (and probably die) as free men.

This is like Red Dawn if it were written by Joseph Conrad, Franz Kafka, or even Bret Easton Ellis. And yes, Lange was none-too-happy about not receiving some acknowledgement by the makers of the original Red Dawn who he claims glommed part of the story from Vandenberg.

But this is not Red Dawn, and it doesn’t end well.

A great–but by no means, inspiring, read–Vandenberg explores the meanings of freedom and liberty in light of having lost both, and how the ability to make real choices has little to do with selecting from multiple brands of soap or soup or shoe shine. It is particularly interesting by comparison–then and now–given that we are forty years downstream from its initial publication and new generations are asking the same questions while social media abounds with armchair warriors and keyboard commandoes, many of whom grew up during the time Lange writes about here and are thus the target of his criticism.

In other words, Millennials didn’t invent apathy; they just inherited it. Improved and refined it.

Out of print and difficult to find, it’s worth the effort if you can handle its bleakness and unsatisfying lack of gunfire and explosions. This is not a Schwareznegger joint.