The Smallest Color by Bill Roorbach

by Phoebe Kate Foster


Escape from the Summer of Love

There must be some kind of way out of here,
said the joker to the thief.
There’s too much confusion here,
I can’t get no relief.

51; Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower

cover art

The Smallest Color

Bill Roorbach


“I am Coop Henry. Anthony Cooper Henry. A man who talks to his dead brother . . . Not all of it in the middle of the night, not all of it even safely in my head anymore. I can’t hold the cracks closed; I’m losing my strength; I’m leaking lava.”

So begins the wild ride that is one man’s life as he seeks release from the bondages of both past and present. The reader freefalls with the main character through an emotional breakdown as he recalls the events of three decades earlier that culminated in the mysterious disappearance of his adored older brother. Coop Henry has hidden the grim truth of what really happened to Hodge from his family since the age of sixteen. Now in his forties, he is cracking under the strain of the memories of the summer of 1969, the fateful summer he ran away to try to find his missing radical hippie brother.

Everybody knows about 1969, even if they weren’t even alive then. It was a unique golden moment in contemporary history, the legendary “Summer of Love” -– the year of the first Woodstock Festival (held, as every good hippie knows, not actually in Woodstock, New York but miles away in Bethel). The Age of Aquarius. The youth revolution, fueled by drugs and rock music and raw idealism.

“Make love, not war.” “Flower power.” “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” The slogans may sound silly now, but they didn’t back in that magical season. Every kid wanted to run away with his or her guitar to Haight-Ashbury and become a street musician. Or go live on a commune and grow organic vegetables and good wholesome pot.

But the free-wheeling, feel-good ‘60s had a decidedly seamy underbelly -– the dream of peace and love could go bad with no warning. Rock concerts weren’t necessarily a haven of good vibes after the violence at the Altamont Music Festival. There were escalating confrontations between protestors and “the pigs” in cities like Chicago and on campuses like Berkeley. Cults with their Svengali-like gurus proliferated. Homegrown radical terrorist groups, like the infamous Weathermen, comprised of well-educated young anarchists, built bombs in elegant Manhattan townhouses and planned to overthrow the government.

Bad drugs. Blown minds. ODs. Runaway kids living on the streets. The rebellious progeny of upstanding citizens “going underground” in the psychedelic subculture of society.

Coop and Hodge are just such kids, and against the backdrop of this darker side of the ‘60s, Roorbach sets much of his novel. Hodge mysteriously vanishes into the rowdy crowd at an anti-war demonstration in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village that he and Coop have sneaked off to attend. FBI agents keep calling to question the family about their missing son, implying his connection to dangerous extremist elements. Coop is haunted by his brother’s disappearance, which leaves him the lone rebel in a conventional family and the target of his father’s growing rage at how his children are turning out.

On a family car trip to the West coast, Coop and his father get into a violent fight over his long hair. Coop conveniently ducks into a diner at a truck stop, cons a free meal out of the waitress by pretending to be a runaway, and eludes his parents’ search for him. When he returns later, the gas station attendant erroneously informs him, “Your parents left you. Said they’d come back when you got a haircut.” Stunned by his family’s apparent desertion –- and unaware they are in a nearby motel, desperately waiting for the police to find him –- Coop hits the road to track down Hodge.

Through a series of flashbacks, the reader follows 16-year-old Coop on a bizarre odyssey through the turbulent subculture of the ‘60s -– a harrowing trip that takes him across the country, turns him into a criminal, lands him jail, makes him a fugitive, and puts him in the company of addicts, murderers and runaways. He eventually finds his beloved brother, but the reunion is nothing like he anticipated and involves him in terrorist activities that ultimately lead to catastrophe.

Interspersed among the memories of his disastrous Summer of Love experiences are Coop’s day-to-day observations on the shambles of his present life. His nervous breakdown puts him in a mental institution. His job as a ski coach for the Olympic team is in jeopardy and he finds himself attracted to the star of the female downhill skiers. He discovers his wife of many years is having an affair – a particularly devastating revelation, since she was a key player in that fateful summer of ‘69 and the only other person who knows Coop’s secret about his brother’s real fate.

Additionally, his mother has hired a detective -– “the same one who solved Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance” -– to put to rest the 33-year-old Henry family mystery and find the long-missing oldest son. Inevitably, Coop heads this shrewd private eye’s list of suspects as the last person to have seen Hodge alive.

Though well written, The Smallest Color is something of a disappointment. The climax is not entirely believable and implausibility is a problem throughout the book. Even given the colorfulness of the era and the proclivity of kids to get into trouble, Coop’s experiences, both individually and cumulatively, defy the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. It’s unlikely, for example, that a conservative Montana rancher would hire an underage city-slicker stranger with no experience as a ranch hand without first checking with the local police about runaways -– and even more improbable he’d house him in the room next to his attractive adolescent daughter. The book relies too heavily on convenient coincidences that in real life would simply not happen or occur with such amazing regularity.

Additionally, the author invests so much energy in Coop’s personal angst that there is little left for the other characters, who are intriguing but underdeveloped. This is particularly true of the Henry family, who remains enigmatic and described primarily through casually tossed off clichés (“My mother was a Daughter of the American Revolution.”) Even Hodge—the cause of all the brou-ha-ha in the first place -– remains a one-dimensional bad-to-the-bone kid who likes to play with explosives and torch businesses. The reader is left with the mother’s vague assessment, “He wasn’t right from the seventh grade on.” The failure to explore in any greater depth the dynamics of the Henry family is the biggest weakness of the book, dulling the emotional impact of the story and leaving readers only minimally caring about what happens to individual characters.

The Smallest Color is at its best describing the feel and flavor of the ‘60s -– the music, the tie-dye and love beads and bell bottoms, the free stores and the free love, the head shops and hash pipes and peace marches and “crash pads” where any refugee from the uptight straight world was welcome. Roorbach is a bona fide, credential-carrying ‘60s savant, and you can trust his voice to describe the era.

If you lived through The Summer of Love, you’ll undoubtedly savor a return visit to a familiar land. If you didn’t, sit back and enjoy the magical mystery tour –- and be both sorry and thankful you didn’t experience it personally.

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