Dark Matters

Written by Paul M. Levitt
Review by B. J. Sedlock

Although there are several major characters, this is mainly the story of Ben Cohen, a Korean War veteran and University of Colorado graduate student during the McCarthy era. When the FBI comes to campus in 1952 to investigate “Red”-leaning teachers, Ben refuses to sign a loyalty oath, and speaks out to defend others who are accused of being Communists.

Growing disgusted with university politics, Ben persuades his friend Marty and their respective girlfriends to retreat to New Mexico with him, to help the miners at the Salt of the Earth strike in Hanover. Despite his attraction to miner’s wife Esperanza, when the strike negotiations stall, Ben follows girlfriend Clarissa to her home in Kentucky. He meets a cold reception from her “society” parents, who don’t want their daughter marrying a Jew, and a “Red” to boot.

The novel’s last 60-some pages follow Ben to 1969, when he is sent as a reporter to Czechoslovakia to record events following the Prague Spring. Marty joins him there, and discovers some surprising revelations about Ben, Clarissa, and Esperanza.

The information about 1950s university life, labor politics, and the witch-hunts of the McCarthy era was interesting, but, try as I might, I couldn’t get emotionally involved with Ben and the other characters. Most of the chapters are narrated by either Marty, in first person, or shown through Ben’s eyes in third person. Perhaps the latter creates too much distance between the reader and Ben’s character. But if learning about an intriguing era of history is higher on your priority list than emotionally-involving characters, you will like the book.