Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Book Review: Crossing California, by Adam Langer

A few years ago, I was house-sitting and dog-sitting for a professor on campus. Each Sunday I read her newspapers and nonchalantly flipped through each section of the Chicago Tribune. On the front page of the Books section I saw a review of Adam Langer's Crossing California, and I was intrigued. It's a story of a few families in the West Rogers Park neighborhood on the northeast side of Chicago in the late 1970s and early 1980s. My interest was piqued, because I grew up on the southwest side of Chicago, roughly due south of where the novel takes place. I ordered myself a copy from Amazon and was instantly hooked.

Maybe it was the coincidence of the book taking place about 10 miles from where I grew up--I knew instinctively the streets of California, Western Avenue, Kedzie. Maybe it was the depth of Jewish culture and religion throughout the book and I saw so many parallels between Judaism and my own super-Catholic upbringing. Maybe it was the time period and being able to see Chicago in the 1970s through my parents' eyes for the first time. Whatever it was, I loved it.

Crossing California is about just that: crossing California Avenue. In 1970s West Rogers Park, the neighborhood was divided between those who lived east of California and west of it. California wasn't just a dividing line, it was a major thoroughfare for the neighborhood, taking you north to the suburbs or south to the west side. Start walking east and you'll have to stop at the lake. The book gives you the impression that in the 1970s, the entire Rogers Park neighborhood was all but forgotten by the city, practically given up to Evanston and the suburbs.

The story centers around 10 main characters: Charlie, Michelle, and Jill Wasserstrom, a family of 3 living east of California after the death of Charlie's wife Becky; the the Rover family, specifically kids Larry and Lana, each with their own problems and each choosing to wait out the day when the Rovers will split--Larry waits it out while planning is future as a Jerusarock superstar, Lana while comparing herself to every other student at K.I.N.S. Hebrew school and making sure she's still better than they are; Lennie Kidd, a washed up never-was who is still searching for his "big break" in the middle of a mid-life mental breakdown; Mel Coleman, a businessman looking for his big break with his upcoming film epic "Godfathers of Soul"; Carl 'Slappit Silverman', a record mogul from Malibu with deep roots in Chicago; and finally Deirdre & Muley Wills, a mother-son family with a strange working relationship who struggle financially as Deirdre deals with her depression and Muley finds an interest in film and animation as he eagerly pursues Jill Wasserstrom.

The underlying theme of the story is basically that we're all connected, inextricably, from the events that surround us. The Iran hostage crisis is taking place in the background while Jimmy Carter's presidency crumbles. In the meanwhile, Jill fights being bat mitvah'd while her father struggles to keep his family afloat, ultimately finding a job from an unlikely source. Michelle continues to flounder academically while pursuing a career in theatre, keeping her dead mother's dream of stardom alive. Muley and Jill's friendship is strange and awkward. Though they're still in elementary school, Muley's in love with Jill, who keeps him at a distance because she values their current relationship.

All of the characters are linked to one another, though most of them are unaware of it. In fact, so few of the characters become aware of their relationship to others that it's a little mindblowing given the small town nature of West Rogers Park.

From 1979 to the evening Ronald Reagan is inaugerated as President, the stories unfold, one after another, each influencing the next. At the end, Jill & Muley find themselves on a street corner in West Rogers Park, each making a choice about the other that will ultimately influence the outcome of the next few years.

I first read this book in the summer of 2004 and I loved it. A few weeks ago, in the mood for some "light" summer reading, I dug it out of a box in the office and settled into a chair. I loved this even more the second time around. I picked up on more of the nuances and even more of the links between characters. I saw clearly Deirdre's depression and her son's acceptance, where before I just saw a mother who couldn't figure out how to relate to her only child. I saw Mel's desire to prove himself as a successful contributer to society, and in 2004 I just read him as arrogant, obnoxious, and racist.

This is one of my favorite novels, in part because I can see so much of my own family in it despite the obvious differences in religion. I see a lot of myself in Jill, especially that of a girl who is more contemplative than verbal, and who would rather read than socialize during family parties. I see my family in the Wasserstrom's relatives, ones who so casually throw out racial epithets but think nothing of it, and kids who wince and cringe at words like "schwartzer" and are determined to make their generation one that is more accepting and proactive than the last.

That being said, this book isn't for everyone. There's a lot of sex and a ton of "4-letter" words. It's not what I would call a beach read, either. As a reader, you need to pay a fair amount of attention, especially as most of the action takes place within the character. If you love to read and have at least an hour a day to invest yourself in a good book, this is one I'd recommend.

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