Tuesday, July 05, 2005

26. Crossing California

by Adam Langer

Book number four in the Gapers Block Book Club series, Adam Langer’s Crossing California is something I would have never picked up without Alice’s insistence. Hell, I didn’t even know it existed until she named it as the June reading selection. I’m not sure why that is – maybe I’ve fallen out of the loop a bit? – because it would seem to me that a book of this scope and nature would get a fair bit of press, especially in the city of its setting.

The “California” in the title refers not to the state, but to California Ave., a street on the West Side of Chicago that divides West Rogers Park into working class residents on its east side and upper middle class residents on its west. The story follows three families through, roughly, one year of their lives (the 444 days of the Iranian hostage crisis, to be exact), tracking their growth, separation, and realizations through the different members. The Wasserstroms are Charlie and his daughter Michelle and Jill, the former being concerned mainly with sex, drugs, and giving the finger to the Man, and the latter fully confident of her own intelligence and disheartened by the adults that serve to undermine it. Michael and Ellen Rovner are on the last legs of their marriage while their son Larry, a through and through geek who can’t make it with girls, struggles to choose between school and rock music, and their daughter Lana, an uptight perfectionist, may have developed an eating disorder dependent on her mother’s presence. Muley Wills and his mother Deirdre are the only Black characters, the only non-Jewish characters, and, with perhaps the exception of Jill, the only characters who ever really know what they’re about.

While discussing the book, Cinnamon mentioned that she found it interesting how different the Rovners' views of their children were. While Michael thinks Larry’s a stud, because he always claims to be going on dates, Ellen can see right through him and assumes that he’ll end up living a “harmless, somewhat pathetic but inoffensive” life. That got me thinking about how seemingly different the novel’s children are, because they’re actually quite similar. Both Michelle and Larry are overly concerned with sex, but in Michelle’s case she’s having it. It drives her interactions with her friends and teachers and she can’t imagine going too long without it. Larry’s only had sex once, but he’s constantly trying to feign nonchalance on the topic, going so far as to invent relationships and visit adult shows. In the end, the two wind up, surprisingly, somewhere in the middle in terms of credibility and experience. Likewise, Lana Rovner is obsessed with getting perfect grades and going to the right school and being worldly while Jill Wasserstom needs no one’s approval to know that she’s smart. Lana is extroverted and social whereas Jill is political and can often think of no better place to be than alone with a good book. Yet the two are both led to realize the walls they’ve built around themselves and are forced to come off their high horses to break them down.

I’m not a very political person, and the Iranian hostage crisis happened before my time, so I know little about the historical significance of the story’s chronological setting. For me this was mainly a novel about the characters’ lives. Muley’s unwavering love for Jill drives his efforts as a filmmaker and Deirdre is knocked around on the road to becoming the influential, intelligent woman she knew she was before her fallout with Muley’s father. Michael and Ellen flail about as parents, both too self-absorbed to truly know their children. Though always with their best interests in mind, Charlie never quite has enough of a backbone to stand up for his daughters and be the father that they need. For me this story wasn’t about the political climate or even the city; it was about the characters. There’s so much going on in these lives that I wanted to fly through the pages just to know how everything would come together. I really admire an author’s ability to fully flesh out their characters, to present them in such detail that the reader feels as though they truly know them. Langer skillfully does that here and I can’t say just how full and satisfied that makes me feel.

I’m still not sure why I didn’t know about this book before, but I’m happy that I can add it to my collection and am even happier knowing that the book club is adding to my Chicago education. Here’s hoping the next great Chicago read doesn’t fall under my radar.

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