“A work of unusual mastery, compassion, insight and wit. What is exciting about CROSSING CALIFORNIA is not merely the scope of Adam Langer's literary ambitions, but the generous ways in which he fulfills them.”
—Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook
“Crossing California is so rich in the vitality of life that it includes a glossary of terms, which is itself far more interesting and evocative than are many other novels entirely. I suggest you cross whatever streets and avenues are necessary to get to a bookstore and pick up your copy of Crossing California.”
—Gene Shalit, The Today Show, NBC-TV
“Chicago's California Avenue is where wit and ingenuity meet the heart and soulfulness of Jewish American fiction in this wonderfully confident novel. Rooted in its artfully developed characters as well as California Avenue, a real street in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood, Crossing California captures its intimate feel, then cleverly sets that intimacy in the context of world events.”
—Stuart Dybek, Author of I Sailed With Magellan, The Coast of Chicago
“...without a doubt, my favorite novel of the year thus far has to be Adam Langer's outstanding debut, CROSSING CALIFORNIA A sweeping, multi-generational saga of three unforgettable Chicago families, it's urbane, ambitious, and hilarious with a winning pop sensibility. Langer breathes life into his characters with a warmth and generosity that's practically unheard of in contemporary fiction.”
—Brad Parsons - Amazon.com Editor in Chief
“CROSSING CALIFORNIA is a tremendously moving and funny first novel about two generations of family and friends in Chicago at the end of the 1970's. California, the street not the state, separates the the Jewish community into upper and middle class, and Langer captures the time and place with unsentimental insight. This is a wonderful combination of social commentary, personal dreams, family function and dysfunction, half-forgotten history and pop culture.A wise, big-hearted book that ended much too soon.”
—Leslie Reiner, Inkwood Books, Tampa FL
“CROSSING CALIFORNIA is one of the most vivid books ever written about coming of age in the late 1970's, while at the same time it is a portrait of Chicago that belongs up on the shelf with Dybek, Algren and Bellow. With an anthropologist’s eye for detail and a poet’s heart, Adam Langer examines the lives of these All-American Jewish Chicago kids to create a wonderfully funny, rich, and moving mosaic of a book.”
—Dan Chaon, National Book Award-nominated author of Among the Missing and You Remind Me of Me
“Adam Langer’s novel is a triumph of wry observation and merciless insight-- a darkly comic, even bravely comic view of lust and loss, doubt, faith, and social yearning. An amazing debut by a terrifically talented writer.”
—Elinor Lipman, author of The Pursuit of Alice Thrift
“Adam Langer knows Chicago. He also knows American history, Jewish tradition, family function and dysfunction, and pop culture. More importantly, Adam Langer knows about the unspoken caste system prevalent in our country's secondary schools. Crossing California is a sweeping Pynchonian/Salingerian/Rothian epic tale that focuses on the intricate dreams and brutal realities of the Wasserstrom and Rovner families, plus wonderful Muley Wills. Their intersecting lives, their actions and responses, prove beyond all else that Adam Langer knows about the sputtering human heart. Crossing California is a classic.”
—George Singleton, author of The Half-Mammals of Dixie and These People Are Us
“Adam Langer’s CROSSING CALIFORNIA carries us at full gallop into the lives and locales of a vivid crew of characters whose plans and failures and yearning hearts seem as real and true as our own. Along the way he manages a surprisingly affectionate rendering of the early 1980’s, unearthing funny and poignant touchstones out of that little purgatory between Woodstock and the computer age. By turns wise, droll, and sexy-and sporting a plot that Charles Dickens might have envied -- CROSSING CALIFORNIA is a superb first novel.”
—Brad Barkley, author of Money, Love, Alison's Automotive Repair Manual: A Novel
Poignant, ambitious, and tremendously fun, Crossing California is the fiction discovery of the season-a novel about two generations of family and friendship in Chicago from November 1979 through January 1981. In 1979 California Avenue, in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood, separates the upper-middle-class Jewish families from the mostly middle-class Jewish residents on the east of the divide. This by turns funny and heartbreaking first novel tells the story of three families and their teenage children living on either side of California, following their loves, heartaches, and friendships during a memorable moment of American history. Langer's captivating portraits, his uncanny and extraordinarily vivid re-creation of a not-so-past time and place, and his pitch-perfect dialogue all make Crossing California certain to evoke memories and longing in its readers-as well as laughter and anxiety. Whether viewed as an American Graffiti for the seventies, The (Jewish) Corrections, a Chicagoan Manhattan, or early Philip Roth for a later generation, Crossing California is an unforgettable, and thoroughly enjoyable, contribution to contemporary fiction.
The Story Behind The Story
By Adam Langer
In the early 1970s, when I started going to grade school on the northwest side of Chicago, there was a phrase I used to say to myself as I was walking home: “Once you cross California, everything’s ok.” The phrase referred to California Avenue, a street that traversed the north side of Chicago and formed a significant boundary in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood where I grew up and where my parents still live. California was one of two streets in West Rogers Park that for all practical purposes separated classes. West of California was largely upper middle class, east of California mostly middle class. The second boundary, Western Avenue-Chicago’s longest street-demarcated the separation between middle and working class. Before I was born, my family lived east of Western; when I was going to school, we lived just one block west of California.
For my family, crossing to the west side of California represented their arrival and assimilation into mainstream, middle-class American life. My father was born in 1925, the son of Eastern European immigrants who spoke exclusively Yiddish; one of his earliest jobs was as a Prohibition-era bartender in a speakeasy in the Levee District, which was ruled by Al Capone. Later, my grandfather worked as a trucker for a soda pop distributor. My mother was born in 1927 on the west side of Chicago. A good portion of her youth was spent living in the back of a store run by her father. I grew up listening to my mother tell stories about her father’s attempts to perfect various inventions he had designed. By the time the 1960s had rolled around, my parents’ connections to their family’s immigrant past had just about disappeared; they vacationed in Colorado, New York City and Washington DC; they owned a Ford Thunderbird and a Volvo; in their three-bedroom West Rogers Park house, there were two televisions, two hi-fi’s and a pool table. In 1967, the year I was born, only one of my grandparents was still alive. Last Memorial Day Weekend, my uncle passed away; he was the last member of my family to have the last name Herstein, which I decided to take as a middle name while writing this novel.
Alas, perhaps thankfully, Crossing California is not a family history, nor is it a personal memoir. But, like my parents’ journey from Chicago’s old Jewish West Side to West Rogers Park, it does deal with a period of transition in my life as well as in Chicago and America at large. The novel is set during the 444 days of the U.S. hostage crisis in Iran. Memory tends to simplify matters, but with the exception of the present moment in America, I can’t recall a time in our country during which the mood and political climate shifted so quickly. On November 4, 1979 when I was in eighth grade, Jimmy Carter was president, Jane Byrne was Chicago’s first woman mayor, there was a permissiveness and openness to the city, kids would hitchhike to school, drugs were prevalent yet never seemed overly threatening, the feminist and black power movements had not yet fallen out of favor with the national government. And, I might add, before November 1979, hardly anyone had heard of radical Islam. On January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan was being sworn in as president; the U.S. hostages had been released, but I recall a sense of cynicism and fear beginning to take hold. Chicago’s government was once again mired in corruption; Muhammad Ali’s career was through; John Lennon was dead; xenophobia and moral absolutism were growing. The phrase “Just Say No” was soon to become the nation’s motto. And the chant “USA! USA!” began to seem less a patriotic cry than a threat. In just fourteen-and-a-half months, my life, my city and my country all felt markedly different, something that seemed to have little to do with the fact of my Bar Mitzvah.
At this point, I hasten to add that none of this novel about the intersecting lives of three families in West Rogers Park is autobiographical. Still, I do share experiences with almost each individual character. Like the young filmmaker and radio personality Muley Wills, at the age of 13, I worked as an actor, reporter and editor for a local NPR affiliate, as well as an amateur and, later, professional filmmaker. Like his mother Deirdre, I worked briefly as an instructor in the Chicago public schools. Like his father, Carl “Slappit” Silverman, I spent time working on play scripts in Chicago’s African-American entertainment world. Like Jill Wasserstrom, the object of Muley’s desires, I was Bar Mitzvahed in 1980 and also proudly defended the policies of the Ayatollah Khomeini in front of a class of appalled eighth graders. Like her father Charlie, I worked during high school as a reporter for a chain of low-rent neighborhood newspapers. Like her sister Michelle, I was a high school thespian (though I was nowhere near as talented as she is, despite having shared the stage with such luminaries as Chicagoan John Cusack). As for the Rovner family, I too lived west of California, and though I would prefer not to think I have much in common with any of them, of course I do. Like 13-year-old Lana, I briefly hosted my own prepubescent radio show entitled “Adam’s Perspective.” Both of our fathers happen to be radiologists, though if my father was ever as sex-obsessed as hers, I’d prefer not to know. Like Lana’s brother, Larry, I was a crappy guitarist with dreams of rock ‘n’ roll stardom. Like her mother Ellen, my father once saved my life in an almost-comical way. And, like one of the minor characters in the novel, I too suffered an existential crisis at the age of 13 when I accidentally extinguished my synagogue’s eternal light. But what feels most autobiographical to me in this novel are not these individual stories and personality traits, but the sense of transition in my life and the lives of those around me during the 444 days between Autumn 1979 and Winter 1981.
Though my parents still live in their house west of California, of course the neighborhood of West Rogers Park has changed. Most of the first generation Jewish families who are still living have departed-to retirement homes, to the suburbs, to Phoenix, to Hot Springs, to Miami Beach. In their place are the newer immigrants-the post-glasnost Russian Jews, the Asians, the Indians, the Palestinians. And yet, the borders remain. But, even though I have crossed different borders since I moved out of the neighborhood-from West Rogers Park to Lincoln Park; from Chicago to New York City-whenever I visit my old neighborhood, I still feel slightly nervous every time I cross over to the other side of California.
Publisher's Weekly Feature
People sometimes ask me whether Muley, Michelle, and Lana’s experiences on the show Young Town have any basis in fact. Although these scenes in the novel are purely fictional, I did spend some time in the early 1980s as a child actor on the Chicago NPR affiliate WBEZ, performing on such shows as Audio Jam, Youth News. Here are some samples of what those shows sounded like.
Paperback: 512 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Trade
Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
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