February 2005

Beth Dugan

fiction

Crossing California by Adam Langer

If you haven’t worked out all your self-esteem and insecurity issues; if you still dream about perfectly killing things to say to the mean girls or cool kids from your high school, reading Adam Langer’s debut novel Crossing California, will be a very uncomfortable experience. Langer captures, above all, the angst and emotional upheaval that is adolescence and the transparent ploys of parents to maintain any connection to their rapidly changing offspring.

Crossing California follows the Wasserstrom, Wills, and Rovner families' five teenage offspring and five parents as they maneuver through the social and political climate between 1979 and 1981 -- including the Iran hostage crisis and the inauguration of Ronald Reagan -- in the Rogers Park neighborhood in Chicago. Named for California Avenue which divides the Jewish “have and have-nots” of this neighborhood, Crossing California is the coming of age of a community within a nation.

Langer steeps his work in the culture of the 80’s and the Jewish neighborhood, going as far as to have a “Glossary of Selected Terms” in the back to reference the many Yiddish and Hebrew terms as well as the social references of the era like, “Babashoff, Shirley. U.S. Olympic swimmer” and “tsuris. Troubles (Yiddish)” It is well researched, perhaps well remembered and feels like a book about the time as much as it is about the characters.

The two families on either side of California Ave., the Rovners and the Wasserstroms, are obvious foils, while the Willis family, Muley and his mother Deirdre, stand apart from the obvious comparison. The Rovners have money, comfort and an intact family while the Wasserstroms have little money and have suffered the loss of their mother. Jill and Michelle Wasserstrom are infinitely more likeable than the self-obsessed and manipulative siblings Larry and Lana Rovner, though all the teenage characters have the flaws of adolescence with its self-deception and grandiosity. Charlie Wasserstrom is a well meaning shlub who loves his daughters whereas the Rovner’s parents, Ellen and Michael scheme and connive against each other and their children to get what they want which is, predictably, their lost youth and freedom.

Muley Willis, the young budding writer, filmmaker, radio personality, and electrical engineer, is the emotional center of the book. He has more talent and sensitivity than all of the other characters and shows maturity as he cobbles together a life surrounded by people who are incapable of appreciating his world. “Science and Math were easy. Of the books covered in Reading, he had either read them before or heard his mother describe them in detail… Most teachers were too concerned about the boys carving smiling penis faces into their desks to worry too much about a smart, underachieving kid doing well enough to get by.”

Langer successfully recreated the Reagan Era atmosphere in this Jewish neighborhood in Chicago but he seems afraid of giving the same license to his characters. Instead of using their dialogue to create voice, he uses snippets of conversation in quotations within the body of the narrative. While giving the conversation a humorous irony, the technique wears thin quickly. “Lana remarked that she and Jill had been the only ones in their class who hadn’t 'made one screwup' in their haftorah portions and said she found it 'really interesting' that Jill veered from the script.”

As exciting as Crossing California is at first blush, with its deftly created historical feel, subtle humor and interwoven plot lines, it’s difficult to sustain the feeling. The Rovner family’s manipulative hijinks fails to shock, amuse and eventually fails to interest. The Wasserstroms and Willis are set up early as good people struggling to have good lives that it is just a matter of time until they get there, all suspense vanishes, and indeed the plot, seems just a means to an end already foreseen.

Crossing California by Adam Langer
Riverhead Books
ISBN: 1573222747
432 Pages