Eastside/Westside Story

©Alex Webb/Magnum Photos

Adam Langer’s Crossing California has the quality of a time capsule, an attempt to preserve an era past. Unfolding from November 1979 to January 1981 — the span of the Iran hostage crisis — Langer’s first novel takes place in the Chicago neighborhood of West Rogers Park, a largely Jewish community bisected by California Avenue, which separates the white-collar homes to the west from the working-class district on the other side. Langer, a former editor at Book magazine, understands this territory; he grew up in the area and writes with an insider’s eye. To his credit, though, Crossing California is no thinly veiled autobiography, but a social novel, much like the movie for which his character Muley Wills “was trying to film every inch of West Rogers Park, all the way from the canal at the western border to the cemetery at the east.”

Muley, a 13-year-old whose father ran off to start a record label years earlier, is only one of the figures who populates Crossing California. His best friend, Jill Wasserstrom, lives with her father and older sister, Michelle, in a one-bedroom apartment, and goes to Hebrew school with Lana Rovner, a doctor’s daughter from the right side of the tracks. In these three families (the Willses, the Wasserstroms and the Rovners), Langer offers the full range of the local social hierarchy, from those, like Muley’s mother, who are hanging on, to the Rovners, who have more than they need. In that sense, West Rogers Park represents a microcosm of America, where yearning and achievement coincide in unexpected ways.

This is particularly true of the book’s teenage characters, who must confront the issues of late-1970s adolescence, from booze and dope to casual sex and radical politics, and find a passage through. Even the wildest among them, like Michelle Wasserstrom — who rebels through much of the novel — are decent kids, looking out for each other as they try to make their way in a disheartening world. It’s a far cry from how we view teenagers today, and a sad reminder of just how unforgiving we’ve become. Some of the funniest moments in the book, in fact, are almost unimaginable in our current climate, especially those involving Jill Wasserstrom, who, at 13, has already devoted herself to revolutionary struggle, putting up a photograph of Ayatollah Khomeini in her bedroom, and closing her bat mitzvah speech by declaring, “A people united shall never be defeated . . . Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh.”

The reason Jill — or, for that matter, Michelle — compels us is that she’s complicated and nuanced, contradictory and real. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of most of the book’s other characters, who, with the exception of Muley, are too broadly drawn to be believed. This is a significant issue, for it leaves us with no consistent point of view. It’s disconcerting to move from Jill, who, having lost her mother at a young age, believes the universe will abandon her, to Larry Rovner, the 17-year-old leader of the Jewish rock band Rovner!, whose demo tape “sounded like a bunch of kids hammering on Sears instruments in somebody’s basement while some kid mumbled in a vague imitation of Bob Dylan.” Larry is the stuff of parody, but Langer seems to want him to be more than that, which leaves the reader confused about the novel’s intentions. Such a problem also marks the adults here, who come off as less than fully realized, stereotypically narcissistic, even adolescent in their concerns. It’s not exactly unexpected, because Langer was himself a teenager at the time of which he writes. Yet if that suggests something of his sympathies, it also highlights a key flaw in the novel, since without believable adults, he cannot re-create the neighborhood as he intends.

Ultimately, all this undermines Crossing California. Yes, the book brings back another era, one as stark in its own way as the age we live in, albeit with a more compassionate edge. Yes, it captures a neighborhood that literally straddles the line between privilege and aspiration, belonging and desire. Still, for all that, Crossing California never truly comes to life. It is, in other words, less a time capsule than a simulacrum, an imitation of its long-gone world.

CROSSING CALIFORNIA | By ADAM LANGER | Riverhead Books 433 pages | $25 hardcover


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