When we first meet Leonora, the protagonist of Andrew Altschul’s sharp novel “The Gringa,” she’s proudly declaring herself a terrorist. Which is an odd thing for a nice young American Jewish woman to be doing. She enjoyed an untroubled upper-middle-class upbringing in Connecticut and arrived at Stanford only vaguely interested in matters of social justice. But by 1998, a radicalized Leonora stood accused of leading a terrorist plot in Peru, where she was eventually sentenced to life without parole. “Is it terrorism to love freedom?” she cries to reporters. “It is terrorism to hate injustice, to feed people who are hungry?”
Altschul’s novel is an impressively textured attempt to look into those questions and the questioner, even if 400-odd pages bring us no closer to a clear answer. It’s fine that he falls short: His goal is to write a terrorist thriller that isn’t about black hats and patriots but the state of confusion that’s truer to times of political crisis. In the process, Altschul gets to have it both ways; he’s written a story with an activist’s righteous energy and a novelist’s psychological depth.
Before Leonora was a terrorist (or “terrorist”), she was a naif. Inspired by a Chomsky-esque professor, she flies to Lima to work with an NGO but quickly grasps that people are trying to serve the poor in ways more pointed than digging trenches for water mains. She spies graffiti for an organization called the Cuarta Filosofia, a kind of modest successor to Shining Path, the communist movement that effectively met its demise in the early ’90s after years of conflict that left tens of thousands dead or disappeared. “She would not truly belong here until she understood these invisible networks, until she could read the map behind the map,” Altschul writes.
Unsurprisingly, locals who have endured years of violence between guerrillas and a government that received U.S. support are in no rush to clue Leonora in. Go back to the Sheraton, she’s told; go hike the Inca Trail like every other tourist. But Leonora is determined to be of use, and in time people connected with the group see a certain value in her.
“The Gringa” alternates between Leonora’s story and that of Andres, a novelist-turned-journalist who’s gone to Lima in 2008 to write the definitive feature about Leonora. Andres’ editor, glaringly cartoonish compared to the rest of the characters, is seduced: “A real-life American terrorist. And a girl!” But Andres isn’t looking to chase down a man-bites-dog story so much as he wants to exorcise some writerly guilt. With his mannered and well-crafted first novel coming out after 9/11 and the Iraq war, he worries he’s been thinking too small, and a reading event offers a moment of clarity. “People — real people — were dying by the thousands, and here I was, a cheese plate and bottles of wine set out before me, talking about empathy. It came to me that I was a terrible fraud.”
It’s hard to miss the resemblance between Andres and Altschul, even beyond their first names: Altschul, a former Stanford writing professor, has written two modest novels before swinging for the fences with this one. In recent years, his writing has grown more political; he co-created the Writers on Trump group in 2016 to register protests among the literary community.
“The Gringa” mentions Don DeLillo in a couple of places, including an epigraph, and the novel’s structure resembles that of “Libra,” DeLillo’s 1988 novel about Lee Harvey Oswald, weaving the assassin’s life with that of a writer struggling to make sense of it all. Like DeLillo, Altschul was also inspired by true events: Leonora is modeled on Lori Berenson, an American who was convicted in 1996 of collaborating with a group of Peruvian guerrillas under similarly foggy conditions. Also like DeLillo, Altschul has an affinity for telling stories that find official narratives suspect. Leonora is perceived by various parties as a pawn, a leader, a mastermind, an ugly American and a voiceless cog. Her flannel-suit dad gives her a copy of “Moby-Dick” as a going-away present, and she’s alternately taken for Ahab and the whale.
Andres spends the novel with an epic case of writer’s block, repeatedly asking some variation of “Who was she?” That he ends up without an answer — the climactic scene tantalizingly suggests one, then yanks it away — should seem like a failure of characterization. But novels about American terrorists have traditionally been about America, not the terrorist. “Libra” uses Oswald as a way to get into America’s postwar conspiracy-minded disillusionment. More recently, Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral” and John Wray’s “Godsend” have used homegrown terrorists to deliver spitfire critiques of American values about faith and family.
In that tradition, Leonora is a way to speak back to patriotic pieties as well as Americans’ willful ignorance about the effects of their actions. Thrumming in the background of Leonora’s year in Peru are stories about the 1998 Clinton sex scandal. First they’re just ambient noise, then evidence of American folly and finally, as Leonora is left adrift (“President Clinton has ... other problems,” a Peruvian lawyer tells her), they become part of a narrative about how easily the most relevant story gives way to the most salacious one.
If that all sounds a tick sanctimonious, Altschul is way ahead of you. “Oh, Andres, what a monster of ego you are,” a friend tells him after he vents some of his American guilt. Andres and Leonora both believed that they alone could solve an enormous social problem. It’s an American brand of self-regard, blown out far beyond the scope of modest domestic novels. It can make for a big story, with global consequences.
Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
Melville House: 432 pages, $27.99