On November 9 1965, a young man named Roger La Porte set himself on fire in front of the United Nations in New York. La Porte was one the "volunteer" members of the Catholic Worker community on the Lower East Side; in the few hours he lived after his self-immolation, La Porte explained he was opposed to all wars. His act took place in the context of escalation of the U.S. war in Vietnam, long before most of the public had much awareness of that murderous conflict that would drag on another seven years.
Nicole d'Entremont, who was part of that Catholic Worker community in that time, has published a haunting little novel, City of Belief, that takes off from these events. She's adopted what seems to me a strange and daring means of shaping her story: she uses named historical characters for whom she has invented dialogue and inner thoughts; gives some actual community members their real names while covering the identities of others, equally recognizable, with aliases; and, I think, invents others entirely. (I too was there, about five years later. This book is full of old irritants and old friends.)
But after a slow start, d'Entremont's novel "works" for me.
We have forgotten how war objectors were met with popular violence in those years -- if you weren't around then, think how this country responded to anyone who dared to oppose the U.S.'s initial assault on Afghanistan in 2001. This was a flag waving country in 1965, fearful of enemies and largely trusting of government authority; the Vietnam war broke that trust and it will never come back.
But the politics are secondary to a story of young people trying to find themselves amidst the violence of city life and urban poverty as well as the looming war. As I experienced in the Catholic Worker communities where I lived for a time, the line between the poor who were served and the volunteers who thought we were making a choice to serve was blurry, not that either group much acknowledged that. We were all there because, often for reasons we couldn't articulate, we were where we needed to be. City of Belief is about good people caught up in events and conflicts beyond their comprehension. It doesn't solve anything, but it gently drops you among them. That's a good thing. Very much recommended.