By Adam Langer. Riverhead. 432 pp. $24.95 If you're the sort of reader who flips to the final pages of a book to see how it ends, you'll find inside Adam Langer's first novel, Crossing California, not the ending but rather a 12-page glossary with entries such as "The Blues Brothers," "Cheap Trick," "Richard J. Daley," "honky" and "yarmulke." As with the novel itself, Langer occasionally uses this glossary to provide an anthropologist's peek at a neighborhood (Chicago's predominantly Jewish Rogers Park) during a specific period (the 444 days that American hostages were held in Iran). Therefore, you would learn not only who Ayatollah Khomeini is but also that Astroturf is "A form of synthetic grass popular on front porches of Chicago houses in the 1970s."
Adopting a quasi-omniscient point-of-view to tell this multi-generational saga of three families whose paths intersect, Langer, former editor of the now-defunct Book Magazine, dips into more characters' lives than you're likely to find in several contemporary novels combined. We meet the Wasserstroms: Jill, an introspective eighth-grade Hebrew School student who, on the precipice of adolescence, wants to stake out territory not already tainted by her older and wilder sister, Michelle. We also meet Charlie, their sad-sack but well-meaning father, who is the short-lived manager of It's In the Pot! restaurant. Less endearing are the Rovners, beginning with Lana, a scheming and deceitful 12-year-old; Larry, her older, scheming, sex-obsessed brother and founding member of Rovner!, a rock band celebrating being Jewish; Michael, the scheming, sex-obsessed and unhappily married father; and Ellen, the unhappily married mother, a clinical psychologist who doesn't apply to her own situation the advice she offers other unhappily married women.
Finally, there's eighth-grader Muley Wills, the biracial son of Carl Silverman, a seedy record-label mogul; and Deirdre Wills, daughter of an African American blues singer, who is raising Muley by herself. Saving money so that his mother, a housekeeper, can complete her long-abandoned college degree, Muley is constantly coming up with ideas on how to turn a buck, including putting together a radio-show audition tape in which he tells listeners the story of Russian defector Peachy Moskowitz, a made-up character who supposedly teaches Muley a series of life lessons.
Muley is a "likable likable" character -- that is, a person whose company you'd like to keep in real life as well as on the page. While we meet a few "unlikable likable" characters -- those you wouldn't care for in person but who are endearing on the page -- the novel is chock-full of "unlikable unlikables," characters who probably wouldn't earn your sympathy in either life or fiction.
Weighing in at a dense 432 pages, with themes of race and class looming overhead, Crossing California is an ambitious book with Dickensian scope, but it is also the most recent entry in what may become a new genre: the dysfunctional family saga as seen through the eyes of a Gen X author. The dominant trait of such a book is the author's inability to move aside and let his characters breathe. Instead of being engrossed in Langer's characters' lives, I am too often distracted by his presence and that of his fiction writer's toolbox. The result is a novel that, for all its potential warmth, is oddly chilly.
Langer's convenient shifts in point-of-view, sometimes in mid-paragraph, and his love of superfluous micro-observations contribute to the distance one feels toward his characters, but his most frustrating trait is dryly summarizing the vast majority of the novel's action, including most of what should be dialogue. Consider this robotic exchange between Carl and Deirdre, ex-spouses who haven't spoken to each other in more than 12 years, an encounter that yells for dramatic immediacy: "Carl . . . said he was in town and he wanted to see Muley; he had to talk to him. Deirdre said he had to be out of his mind. They had come to an agreement a dozen years ago, and unless she had missed something, Muley was not an adult yet, she was his mother and, she added, his legal guardian, and she had long ago decided that his father would not be playing an active role in his life, or in hers. Carl said yes, he 'dug' that, but this was different, because he had heard from Muley; that's why he was in town."
Reading Crossing California, you get the feeling Langer didn't make many artistic decisions about what might best serve his characters. This is really unfortunate. The novel's themes prove that he is a writer with a large vision, but all too often Crossing California tries to be a big novel rather than simply being one. *
John McNally, author of "The Book of Ralph," teaches at Wake Forest University.