THE WASHINGTON STORY
By Adam Langer
Riverhead. 400 pp. $24.95
Adam Langer's back. Only 15 months after the release of "Crossing California," a 400-page novel that chronicled the lives of several folks in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood during the Iran hostage crisis, Langer brings us a 400-page sequel, "The Washington Story."
Langer is an anthropologist with an eye trained on this largely Jewish neighborhood where racial tensions have the potential to flare and where class is delineated by which side of California Avenue one lives on. The backdrop this time is the Reagan years and the rise of Chicago's first African American mayor, Harold Washington. The protagonists are smart, ambitious, mostly well-off young adults about to enter the world at large -- which is to say, a world beyond the boundaries of West Rogers Park. It's the fall of 1982, and Jill Wasserstrom, a junior at Lane Tech High School and a reporter for the Lane Leader, is falling hard for the newspaper's pretentious editor, Wes Sullivan, even though she is still dating Muley Wills; Muley, however, loses his virginity to the notoriously loose Rae-Ann on a school-supervised trip to Cape Canaveral; and Jill's sister, Michelle, returns home from NYU for winter break and begins flirting with Muley's mother's boyfriend, Mel Coleman. So begins Langer's new installment.
This novel is about, among other things, leaving the confines of home, as Jill eventually heads to Vassar and Muley attends art school in Chicago, but it's just as much about what it was like to live in the 1980s. Like John Updike's "Rabbit" novels, Langer's books are sweeping swatches of American history, but where Updike wrote those four books (two of which were modest in size) about 10 years apart from one another, Langer appears to be on the book-a-year track. And here's the difference: Updike's world is fully realized and immediate; Langer's is curiously blurry and removed despite the books' heft. Furthermore, you rarely feel that Langer's story is heading anywhere; it meanders, as if sniffing around for big ideas.
Perhaps a longer gestation period would have mitigated the damage, but I suspect "The Washington Story" will be followed next year by yet another thick volume, taking us past George Bush the First and into the steamy Clinton years -- and why not? "Crossing California" received glowing reviews, sold well and earned its author a fat advance. But there is more than a touch of hyperbole about what Langer has accomplished, especially when Philip Roth and Saul Bellow are alluded to in news releases, reviews and blurbs. (Even Isaac Bashevis Singer has been exhumed for comparison.) Roth, Bellow and Langer write about Jewish characters who sometimes live in Chicago, but this is where the similarity ends. Langer's work lacks the complexity of either Bellow's or Roth's, and his prose is utterly artless. Consider this typical exchange:
"Is that what she thought he did, Muley asked, were there things that she wanted to say to him but hadn't? Not really, Jill said, what did he have in mind? Like -- Muley felt his left hand quivering slightly -- did she want to date Wes? What was he talking about, Jill asked, Wes was dating Rae-Ann. But hypothetically, Muley said. Jill said that she didn't like thinking hypothetically; hypothetically, anything could happen, hypothetically they could all be dead tomorrow, hypothetically she could become a lesbian at any moment. What about him hypothetically, she asked, would he date other people?" On and on it goes like this, page after page. Langer persists in telling nearly everything. It's like listening to someone summarize a movie when what you really want to do is watch it.
Oddly enough, he offers up a plethora of contemporary details as if to compensate for summarizing so often -- details about pop culture, Judaism and the 1980s -- but they are almost always mentioned in passing and are rarely intrinsic to either character or story. (Both of his novels include glossaries, lest you've forgotten who Robert Bork was or haven't seen "The Blues Brothers.") After a while, you get the feeling that Langer is relying on the reader's shock of recognition to carry the book's momentum: "Oh, sure, I remember the song 'Safety Dance'!" The law of diminishing returns must surely kick in at some point. How many shocks of recognition will it take before readers tire of slapping their foreheads?
I want to like these novels; I really do. I want to be engaged by Michelle, Jill and Muley. I grew up in Chicago during the '70s and '80s, and I'm Jill Wasserstrom's age. I would have loved following them into the '90s and then into the 21st century, but I can go no further. They'll have to march on without this reader.