Parul Sehgal, Time Out New York, February 16, 2010
Revolution calls itself a memoir, but Deb Olin Unferth’s tale of dropping out of college to join the Sandinista revolution is something altogether stranger and more dazzling: It’s a virtuosic one-woman show. The story itself is simple: High on a potent cocktail of first love, evangelical Christianity and Kierkegaard, Unferth and her boyfriend, George, settle in for a season of shiftlessness in Managua, Nicaragua. They take odd jobs at bicycle shops and orphanages. They fall prey to ill humor and dysentery, reading each other’s diaries and shitting in the street. They grow sour on each other and the revolution.
But there’s no wistfulness or sentimentality in Unferth’s account. She doesn’t so much as recall youth as perform it, going so far as to adopt a dopey, teenage voice (“I had wanted to look nice, you know, cute for the revolution”). She taunts herself for her ideological fervorand invites the reader to join in. Given how pitiless Unferth is with herself, it stands to reason she’d be even more fearless when writing about the political upheavals she witnessed. Soldiers tramp in and out of chapters and orphans squall underfoot, but they’re scarcely more than props to the real revolution, which is interior, psychological, and stars Deb and George. Unferth admits her youthful myopia with horror but she never wrestles with her politics or shares the reasons for her disillusionment.
But this is one omission in a book that’s otherwise filled with ribald humor and atmospheric depiction. It captures Central American society on the cusp of change and middle-class Americans in the fog of youth. It’s smart, stylish, compulsive reading: memoir at its best.