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Reviews Tue Sep 10 2013
Chicago's Favorite Chicago Books is a series of reviews of fiction by Chicago authors. These books are chosen by YOU (and, well, me). To suggest a title I should review, comment here, tweet me @edenrobins and/or use the hashtag #faveChicagobooks!
I can't help it, I love books about Jews! Maybe I'm always looking to make sense of my own Jewishness, or maybe I just love the idea of inside jokes that the rest of the goyische world won't get. Give me more Purim jokes! And oh man, that Tu B'Shevat, amirite?
Point is, I was really stoked to read Adam Langer's Crossing California - so many Jewish inside jokes to chuckle at! And it takes place in Rogers Park! Andandand there's historical context too, as the novel spans the length of the Iranian hostage crisis to the inauguration of Reagan in 1981. I deeply admire fiction that weaves itself into actual historical events. Plus, it's a bildungsroman! And I just love saying bildungsroman. (Translation: Coming of age novel. Remember it and impress your friends!)
But there's a "but". I just wasn't crazy about this book.
And yet I'm torn... as Kurt Vonnegut, patron saint of my literary heart, once said: "Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel... is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae." No rage or loathing here. I'm a writer too, and I know the crushing feeling of some d-bag nonchalantly ripping apart your hard, hard work. I shall endeavor not to be that d-bag.
Crossing California examines the lives of a baseball team's worth of interconnected characters, living in the mostly Jewish community of West Rogers Park in 1979-1981. Eighth-grader Jill Wasserstrom is training for what she hopes will be a Bat Mitzvah even Chairman Mao would dig; classmate and amateur filmmaker Muley Wills is in love with her; frenemy Lana Rovner is a social climber in only the way a 13-year-old can be. Jill's older sister Michelle is a devil-may-care high school actress - a lover of weed, booze, and sex, and Lana's older brother Larry is a self-proclaimed "Jerusa-rocker," an inexplicably devout Jew, and a chronic masturbator. Meanwhile, their respective parents are all bumbling moronically through middle age. Widower Charlie Wasserstrom never quite got his life off the ground, and then fell flat on his face after the death of his wife; Deirdre Wills married the wrong man - a no-goodnik who took advantage of her family and left her with a child, and Michael and Ellen Rovner act like total dicks toward each other while seeking their own thrills extra-maritally.
There's a lot to commend this book. It is extremely ambitious, particularly for a first novel, and I far prefer a book that takes a big swing and misses than one that walks the bases. It also manages to interweave complex historical events with the day-to-day lives of the characters in unique and creative ways, without being moralistic or heavy-handed. There's a lot of great humor, the dialogue is snappy and realistic, and the portrayal of the older teenagers (Michelle and Larry) make them so awesomely recognizable that I cringed more than once.
I should also note that as a general rule, I'm a huge fan of wandering, non-traditional plots and multiple POVs, which this book has in spades. So, where others might complain about these things, take note that I actually like them, if done to my satisfaction.
There's that "but" again.
So, each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, what we in the biz call "multiple POVs". I mean, there aren't infinite characters or anything - each character has more than one chapter dedicated to him/her. But my feeling about so many POV shifts is that there must be a greater purpose to them. If I just won't be able to get into the characters' heads sufficiently without their point of view, and if that intimacy is important to the story and to the author, then yes, switcheroo to your heart's content.
Except... in the case of Crossing California, I was never satisfied with the insight I got into each character. It felt like the narrator was judging them - you know how people gossip about other people sometimes? Some of these characters were downright despicable, which is totally fine, I don't need to like everyone, but I never got a chance to come up with my own opinions about any of them. The characterization was so biased, so negative, that I just felt like I was listening to someone bad-mouth their friends. Even when the chapter was narrated from a character's own POV. Now, there were two stark exceptions to this - the characters of Muley and Deirdre Mills were noble and worthy almost to the point of caricature - smart, capable, tenacious, hardworking, uncompromising, and insightful. So perhaps my issue has less to do with the POV shifts and more to do with the one-dimensionality of the characters - why worship or deride them? Why not just see them as they are - flawed and doing the best they can? Just like the rest of us? This is the sort of thing I look for in my bildungsromans.
The plot was also a bit too rambling for me... and it wrapped up in a way that felt dangly and unfinished for such an all-over-the-map story. And while I thoroughly enjoyed the Chicago-centricity of the setting and time period, a lot of times it felt like, hey, maybe if we just name a bunch of streets and stores in a neighborhood, we'll feel transported to 1979 West Rogers Park. Like Chicago is a celebrity we met at a party once and subsequently name-drop at every possible opportunity. I got the sense that Chicago was little more than a feather in the book's cap, not a close friend. But in obsessively checking reviews of this book (it has a 3.67 on Goodreads with 1400 ratings and four full stars on Amazon!), it appears I'm in the minority.
So what's the take-away? To me, Crossing California is like spumoni ice cream. Many many people love it, but I'm just not a fan. (I mean, what is with those gummy cherries?) I think the book offers an interesting and worthy new flavor to the, erm, sundae of Chicago books, and I won't attack it whilst wearing my full suit of armor, but... I will probably not order it again. And you are welcome for the Vonnegut reach-around.
Adam Langer grew up in West Rogers Park, and though he left the city for Vassar College, he moved back to Chicago after graduating, working as an editor, nonfiction author, playwright, theater director, and film producer. He has lectured on writing and journalism at several universities and has been a frequent radio and television guest on such stations as WGN-TV, CNN Headline News, Fox News, E! Entertainment Network, and National Public Radio. Crossing California was his first novel, and he has since written four more.