Abbie Hoffman careened through life like a force of nature, so it's no surprise that "Steal This Dream," a sprawling oral biography, looks like debris left in the wake of a tornado. In his strange and convoluted career, Hoffman was a hippie, a Yippie, a political provocateur, an author, a drug dealer, a phone phreak, a community activist, a stand-up comedian -- sometimes all at once. When he took his own life in 1989, America lost one of its true originals.
Larry Sloman, a former National Lampoon and High Times editor who collaborated with Howard Stern on his two bestselling books, has clearly done his research. "Steal This Dream," which covers Hoffman's life from his childhood through the glory years of the 1960s and the less-than-glorious years of the '70s and '80s, is constructed of thousands of excerpts from interviews with more than 200 of Hoffman's friends, ex-friends and acquaintances.
Sloman's various informers are often at odds with one another, but Sloman also seems at odds with himself. In his prologue, he professes to offer inspiration to a new generation of radicals -- whom he invites to "steal this dream" as Hoffman had once invited curious Yippie wannabes to "steal this book." But this is not an inspirational book; though fascinating, it's actually hideously depressing to read. The deeper you delve into the disaster zone that was Hoffman's life, the less likely you are to want to emulate it -- even if you could.
Hoffman was a charmer, to be sure -- a born performer, always on. Even his opponents conceded he was a brilliant propagandist and a master media manipulator, thought by many to be the inventor of the sound bite. But Hoffman manipulated everyone around him as well. From the beginning his audiences had trouble distinguishing his truths and his fictions. In time, Hoffman did too -- and his grandiosity got the better of him. He careened back and forth between bursts of manic energy and periods of black depression -- with the highs and lows getting higher and lower as the '60s gave way to the '70s. Eventually, Hoffman was diagnosed with manic depression, a condition exacerbated by his drug use, the tension and loneliness of his underground existence in the late '70s and the slow collapse and co-optation of the American counterculture. By the time he reemerged from the underground in 1980, Hoffman was a walking, talking anachronism, and he never quite recovered from his fall from grace. "If there is a political equivalent of somebody who appears on 'Hollywood Squares,' that's what Abbie had become," book editor Sam Mitnick told Sloman.
Whatever you make of Hoffman's public life -- whether you believe he was a political and cultural hero or little more than a pesky buffoon -- his private life was an appalling mess. The man who helped lead a generational revolt against the father figure of the Establishment was himself a terrible father, the ultimate narcissist. During his famous guerrilla assault on the money culture, as he tossed dollar bills onto the trading floor of the Stock Exchange and caused a near-riot, his first wife, Sheila, was on welfare, trying to support their children with only $16.17 in her bank account. Abbie rarely saw his son and referred to "the kid" in the third person even when the two came face to face. Ultimately, he cut his first two wives, and all of his children, out of his will.
Abbie Hoffman was one of a kind. As Sloman's book makes clear, it's perhaps just as well.