The Group documents, in a nearly journalistic fashion, the development of its nine central characters during their first years after college. The members of the group indulge in considerable experimentation, both political and sexual, throughout this entire period. Reacting against the conservative values of their parents, one character after another becomes attracted to left-wing causes. Several individuals are fascinated with Joseph Stalin’s trials of other Bolshevik leaders from 1936 to 1938. Sympathies with trade unionists, socialists, Trotskyites, and Stalinists emerge, only to be set aside later for more conventional values. Characters in the novel thus appear to be trying on political causes like garments, attempting to find one that fits the person each has become.

Sexual experimentation is another means by which members of the group seek to find their identities. A number of the novel’s major characters have affairs. Others go through successive marriages looking for the right partner. In the end, most of the characters’ sexual roles are as ephemeral as their political affiliations. They experiment sexually because this gives them one more opportunity to rebel against the values of their parents and to discover something of their own identities.

The amount of detail that McCarthy has devoted to the group’s political and sexual adventures serves two purposes. First, it reinforces the novel’s role as a social...

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