Steve Tesich, as moviegoers presumably know, is the author of the screenplay for "Breaking Away," that enchantingly good-humored film about the rites of adolescent passage as played out in a Middle Western college town. In it he revealed a nice appreciation for the subtleties of such timeless matters as the ties and tensions between parents and children, the clanging urgency of teen-aged sexuality, the contrasting styles with which boys and girls "bond," the yearning that all kids have for lives of their own.
Now Tesich comes forward not as screenwriter but as novelist, the identity that, he has told interviewers, he has always most desired. "Summer Crossing" is apparently the result of many years' work, and it is obviously the result of the same experience and sensibility that produced "Breaking Away." Like the movie, it is humane, generous, goodhearted; like the movie, it is the story of a boy in the process of self-discovery; like the movie, it is set in Indiana (where Tesich himself grew up), though in the grimy industrial city of East Chicago rather than the sunny college town of Bloomington.
As it opens in the late spring of 1961, the narrator, Daniel Price, is graduating from high school along with his two close friends, Larry Misiora and Billy Freund. He lives at home with his mother, an earthy native of Yugoslavia, and his timid, bitter father, an exhausted factory worker. If he is uncertain about what he wants for himself, he is absolutely clear about what he does not want: a life like his father's. "I wanted to dissociate myself from his life," he says, "from the possibility of having such a life; from the blood in my veins, partially his blood, which could make me have a life like that."
His father's cruel admonition is, "Promise me you'll never hope." Daniel agrees, in order to keep the peace, but in fact it is hope that keeps him alive -- the hope that he can find love, that he can escape his father and East Chicago, that he can fulfill whatever promise it is that he possesses. When a beautiful, mysterious girl enters his life, all of this suddenly seems within the reach of possibility.
She is Rachel Temerson, who moves to town with an older man whom she calls David but acknowledges as her father. She is a creature of magnetic beauty, palpable sensuality and unpredictable behavior: "She seemed young, almost childish, one day, and the next she would be, or seem to be, a woman much older than I." Daniel falls madly, jealously, obsessively in love with her; she responds with affection and intermittent passion, but clearly prefers to think of him as a "boyfriend" rather than a lover.
An unpleasant surprise is in store for Daniel, though it comes as more of a surprise to him than to the reader. But the lesson he must learn from the experience is the one his mother offers: ". . . when man loves too much, when man loves nothing else except woman, not even God, not even himself, not even his soul, when man only loves woman, he puts up bricks, every day, he puts up bricks with his love, every day he brings another brick and every day the woman sees that the man is making a wall around her, a prison, to protect and keep her. It is like making her dead, to love so much."
Certain aspects of this tale are handled quite skillfully by Tesich. He sensitively portrays the insularity and hopelessness of life in East Chicago, and the various diversions by which young people try to evade the realities that await them. He writes believable, accurate dialogue. And he has an exceptional perception of the lies and manipulations that are so crucial to teen-aged courtship -- the calculated melodrama, the pleas for sympathy, the emotional grandstanding.
But the weaknesses of "Summer Crossing" are considerably greater than these few strengths. Tesich has said in the past that he is not skilled at plotting and structure, but honesty about one's flaws does not excuse them. "Summer Crossing" is almost entirely without shape, and Tesich's clumsy attempts at foreshadowing do nothing to give it coherence. Further, the novel adds nothing of importance to the overstocked library of American rites-of-passage novels; Tesich takes us nowhere we have not been before, and he has nothing to say that has not already been said. The novel is sincere and well-intentioned, but that is not enough; most readers are likely to feel that had its author been less celebrated, he would have had greater difficulty finding a publisher for it.