So it's 1979. Ronald Reagan is about to take over the presidency. Hostages are being held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Rod Stewart rules the airwaves. It's a strange, strange time to be growing up, and Adam Langer captures it pitch-perfectly in his epic first novel, Crossing California.
In West Rogers Park, a largely Jewish enclave of Chicago, we meet Jill and Michelle Wasserstrom, teenage sisters cared for by their widowed father. We also meet Muley Scott Wills, a brainy black kid who scavenges the alleyways for things he can recycle for money. These are the kids who live on the wrong side of California Avenue, the dividing line between proper and less-than-proper in West Rogers Park. On the other side, we find high school senior Larry Rovner, a wannabe "Jerusarock" star who writes pro-Israel lyrics and whose only other discernable interest is getting a date with a girl. Any girl. But that's just the tip of the iceberg in Langer's sprawling, deeply funny and unforgettable take on the peculiarities of suburbia. Crossing California follows the lives of nearly a dozen West Rogers Park residents from November 1979 to January 1981 without ever dropping a stitch. Langer is at his best when he focuses on the potent brew of lust, confusion and hope that swirls through the teenaged bloodstream. Michelle Wasserstrom, in particular, is a revelation: a teen who has sex and uses drugs yet still aces her PSATs and scores the leading role in every high school production. The novel loses steam briefly when Langer turns to Muley's long-lost father, a record producer in Los Angeles. While the storyline is compelling enough, it is jolting to be taken from the richly comic confines of the Chicago neighborhood Langer has created, where we've come to feel so at home.
With Crossing California, Langer delivers both a snapshot of American history and a timeless examination of longing and ambition. It's hard to imagine a more satisfying combination.