What does it mean to Sway?

Here is the book, five young men on the cover, pants tight at their thighs and flared around the ankles.

Here is Kenneth Anger, the strange child, the brilliant filmmaker. Born Kenneth Anglemyer, raised in Southern California. By his thirties he had already been declared a genius by Cocteau. But his films aren’t the kind that make money, so he’s living on the roof of a building in New York. Soon he will see a man working on a motorcycle. He’ll return with a camera, and eventually that vision will become Scorpio Rising. It will herald a new kind of avant-garde cinema, playing continually in New York. It will be banned in some states. Some will refer to it as gay porn, though there are only flashes of nudity. Kenneth Anger is real.

Anger returns to California, settling in San Francisco, where he falls in love with Bobby Beausoleil, a beautiful young rock & roller. In a few years Bobby will beat a man with the butt of his gun. His friend Charlie will cut off the man’s ear. Two of Charlie’s girls will help Bobby tie the man to a chair, where Bobby will stab him in the heart. The first Manson murder.

It went on for a long time after that, Charlie gone, Hinman tied up in the chair, the girls crying. It took Bobby eight tries before he finally drove the knife far enough into Hinman’s heart to kill him. When it was over, they wrote graffiti on the walls in Hinman’s blood. They didn’t know why they did this. They had been awake for more than 48 hours by then. All of it for $100. All of it for no reason at all.

Here are the Rolling Stones, living in an unheated London Apartment. It’s the beginning of the ’60s. Brian Jones, the founder of the band, is like a child. He spins fame and fortune into loathing and addiction. The band travels to Morocco, where an art dealer shows them a print of a film influenced by Anton Savander Lavey, head of the Satanic Church.

“What happened last night?” Mick said, flipping his key in his hand.

Keith kept walking down the hallway. His T-shirt hung over his bare shoulders like a scarf and he tugged at the twisted ends. “That’s the big mystery, isn’t it?” …

Keith went into his room and tossed his shirt on the bed. Lined up against the walls was the equipment that had been brought up for him on the day they’d arrived- the microphones, the tape machine, the acoustic and electric guitars, all the tangled gray cords. He stared at it for a moment, then went out on the balcony and looked down at the pool.

Kenneth Anger is invited to film the band. Anger has a pentagram tattooed on his wrist. By this time Bobby has run out on him, stealing his equipment and the film he’s been working on for more than a year. Kenneth moves to England with nothing.

This is all true. This is Sway, by Zachary Lazar. Published earlier this year, it is unlike any novel I’ve ever read. Lazar takes these real figures and puts them in conversation. It’s like a slow-motion car crash. You put the book down and then pick it back up. You know what’s coming, the dark underbelly of the ’60s, the dissolution of a dream. First the Summer of Love, then Sharon Tate’s baby, then Brian Jones drowned in a pool full of people, then Altamont, and finally the murder cult paraded across the front cover of every national magazine, their young eyes sparkling with wonder.

We’ve seen some of this before. We’ve seen James Ellroy work masterfully with historical figures. But usually authors use fictional characters and surround them with people we recognize, the Forrest Gump technique. Lazar takes people we recognize and fictionalizes them to make them more true.

The Rolling Stones arrived at Altamont by helicopter, transported to the stage in a bulletproof van.

The crowd went back and back, farther than you could see. Even if you wanted to leave now, it would not be easy. There were so many people lolling around, playing flutes or blowing bubbles, their faces so open it was hard to look at them for very long.

There are many ways of looking at the ’60s. Sway gives us a deeper understanding of one particular take than we could ever get from a nonfiction account. It’s all interpretation, of course. But nonfiction is interpretation too. By writing this history as a well-researched novel, Lazar gives us access to the personalities that drove a decade. At the same time he shines a light into the human condition that is at work in every generation. He never strays from the facts, but he recognizes the truth as being malleable. It’s why we have so many biographers that disagree with one another. Not because there is no truth, but because there are so many truths. And that’s what Lazar gets at in this astonishing novel: a truth, wholly compelling, plausible, succinct. A book as beautiful and conflicted as the time it represents.

Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books, including The Adderall Diaries, forthcoming from Graywolf Press.

Sway | by Zachary Lazar | Little, Brown | 272 pages | $24 hardcover

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