STEVE ROBBINS has gone up to Poughkeepsie to have lunch with Sarah, his daughter at Vassar.
"It must be hard there -- in the Bronx," she says. "I mean, intellectually. What's there?"
"Actually, I read more now that I'm there than I have in years. And I go downtown. I go to galleries and museums," he says.
"Well, Amy [her sister] and I don't have a system yet for telling people about you."
"Think of me this way," Steve says to his daughter, "I'm marching to a different drummer. He just happens to be with the Glenn Miller band."
Avery Cormans's third novel -- he also wrote Oh, God ! and Kramer vs. Kramer -- is about an upper-middle-class semi-hero who has dropped out of the Long Island race for cars, houses, alcholic fat and early death. He has chosen to return to the old Bonx neighborhood of his childhood and work as a soda jerk in the Fishers' candy store, play cards with an ancient bookie in Poe Park, and shoot baskets in school yards. Steve Robbins comes to believe that less is more during the course of The Old Neighborhood , and how he comes to his conclusion is what Corman's novel is mostly about.
We first meet Steve Robbins at the age of 10 in 1944. Swallowed up in boyish fantasies of Stuka dive bombers and two-man Japanese submarines, he is the son of a henpecked haberdashery salesman and a voluble mother -- a couple locked in unresolved comflict and held prisoners by their culture in a marriage of arguments over money, weekend bus rides to Orchard Beach, and a nearly invisible tie to Judaism.
Perhaps the single most important event in Steve's life occurs after he graduates from CCNY business school and lucks into a copywriting job in an advertixing agency in Los Angeles. He marries a girl -- her name is Beverly -- as energetic and resourceful as he is. If Steve is the repository of his parents' unfulfilled ambitions -- college education, good job, respectability -- Bevvy is the discrimination and sophistication her parents bypassed en route to big money, Sacramento ranch, and a crorral full of horses.
Beverly is an art history major at UCLA when she and Steve meet, and they share a bed together for around six months as she guides him through the intellecutal life of Los Angeles -- art openings, concerts, lectures. then they decide they are in love. They are married in 1958; Steve is 24, Beverly 21.
Through almost 20 years of marriage nearly everything Steve and Beverly undertake leads to success. Beverly organizes a basement art play group for preschool children that leads to a nationwide art education enterprise over which she presides. Steve is enticed back to a golden New York job and eventually opens his own advertising agency, a "boutique" specializing in ideas and characterized by the trade press as the "Truth in Advertising" agency. They live with their beautiful children in a classy house in Great Neck, keep horses, and spend money easily. But they come to wonder whether they still know each other. They're two professionals so far apart they need to schedule meals together.
After marriage counseling, a tedious holiday without the children, Beverly's sexual "episode" and her summer alone on Montauk, there is no marriage to Save. Steve flees to the old neighborhood instead of suicide or nervous breakdown.
Though dotted with comic irreverencies, The Old Neighborhood seriously treats real life and real problems in domestic America only occasionally examined by our novelist. Furthermore, Corman does it through characters and a story that have meaning for us. W know these people. They are part of us. Therefore we care about them.
While Corman's novel is vividly concrete --places, organizations, objects, events public figures give The Old Neighborhood a documentary quality -- his intention, it seems to me, is as much to covey conditions within which his characters operate as it is to capture them in vivid surrundings dictating change. The implication of Corman's fiction is that is's easier to get the goods of our society that it is to preserve the order that may make the getting possible -- the interdependent support system of marriage and the family. And while the family may crumble under too much, as with Steve and Beverly, the marriage of his parents, with too little, would have collapsed had fashion permitted it. Andre Maurois once said marriage is an edifice that requires rebuilding every day. Corman suggests it may also need constant teamwork and a few non-institutional victories.
Of course, The Old Neighborhood examines the more than marriage. It's about nostalgia -- remembering the way things were in the 1950s and 1960s as young people entered careers and raised childern, recalling neighborhoods and the sense of community, regretting values dropped in pursuit of success. It's about conscience -- striving to hear one's inner self, learining to live tentatively but more fully aware.
Avery Corman attempts not to create literature but to find American life in The Old Neighborhood . Maybe he has done both. Surely he has given us a delightfully written novel of serious intent.