Book Talk: Alumnus explores late 1960s NYC in new novel
Elan Barnehama ’78 includes Vietnam War, N.Y. Mets in 'Escape Route'
Elan Barnehama’s new book, Escape Route (Running Wild Press, 2022), is set in New York during the late 1960s. The coming-of-age story is told by Zach, a teenager, first-generation son of Holocaust survivors, and New York Mets fan. Zach becomes obsessed with the Vietnam War and finding an escape route for his family based on the belief that the U.S. government will round up and incarcerate Jews.
Binghamton Magazine: Where did the idea come from for Escape Route?
Elan Barnehama: I’m interested in what happens away from the spotlight, inside the crowds. I’m drawn to individual stories that contribute to a moment. We collaborate to create history. It’s a team sport. We all enter the world in the middle of events — not all of them good. We can choose to embrace our lives or whine loudly about our circumstances. Or we can muster the courage to imagine a life that has yet to exist.
My characters are growing up within arm’s length of great historical moments. They have to decide if they want to participate or watch or ignore what is happening around them. The 1960s were loud, idealistic and divisive with a lot of good music and free love. Outrageous was the norm for a counterculture that forced the nation to shake off the sleepy 1950s. The 1960s began with the promise of a JFK presidency, symbolizing a generational shift in power. But then came assassinations, the Vietnam War, cities on fire and a turbulent civil rights movement. It didn’t take long for the U.S. to find itself in a serious identity crisis. That was where I wanted my characters to begin.
BM: You graduated from Binghamton in 1978, so you would be roughly the same age as Zach. How much of you is reflected in him?
EB: Escape Route is inspired by biographical content, but it is not autobiographical. Like Zach, I grew up in Queens, joined in anti-war rallies and was heavily influenced by the music and politics of the 1960s. My grandparents managed to escape Hitler’s Europe during the 1930s. I grew up certain I would one day need to escape the U.S. when it was decided that Jews were no longer welcome. I had no reason to think it wouldn’t happen. These days, it seems even more likely.
BM: How did the war affect you then? And how does it affect you now?
EB: The war in Vietnam consumed me. It influenced many of my choices and decisions. I assumed the war would still be going on when I reached draft age. I was not sure what I would do. The political views I hold today remain grounded in my reactions to the Vietnam War.
BM: Zach is a Mets fan. How much does baseball factor into the story? Is it an escape from reality for him?
EB: Baseball is not an escape for Zach; it’s a point of view. Sport, like art, is a way of understanding the world and our place in it. They both expand our idea of what’s possible.
BM: What else would you like fellow alumni to know about the book?
EB: Many of the themes in Escape Route are relevant to the current political climate. And I’d like to acknowledge two exceptional teachers I had at Binghamton: Susan Strehle and Gayle Whittier. Their influence continues to resonate.