Does this ever happen to you? You read and really love a book, but then are sad to find out that it doesn’t seem like other people have discovered this little gem? That’s the thing with the book publishing world, with the vast number of titles that get published each year, and the limited capacity we as readers have for exposure to them all – there are always going to be good – and sometimes great – titles that just don’t seem to get the attention and acclaim we think they deserve.
Crossing California, a first novel by American author Adam Langer is just such a book for me. Published in 2004 by Riverhead Books – not a small publisher by any means – to many positive reviews, and even a fair bit of advance buzz, but it somehow didn’t capitalize on all of that. I don’t recall ever seeing it on a bestseller list, nor do I know anyone else who has read it. Booklist magazine called it “smart, affectionate, and uproariously entertaining”, Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews both gave it stars with Kirkus calling it “Of epic scope, yet intimate in its accomplishments.”
Here’s the story – Set in Chicago in the late 70s and early 80s, Crossing California focuses on several families living in the West Roger’s Park neighbourhood. (Here’s perhaps one of the flaws of this book – or the marketing of it anyway – the California of the title refers not to the state, but instead to a major street in Chicago – the crossing of which takes you from an upscale neighbourhood to a more working class, a fact which has importance in the story that unfolds.) Each family has its own series of issues to resolve and the book focuses both on the parents in these families and their teenage children who each struggle to find their own footing in the world and make sense of their relationships with peers and relatives. Between the three families there is wide cast of characters, something that often bothers me in a book (I can never keep characters straight, alas) but Langer’s decision to tell each chapter in this book from the perspective of another character for me made the plot and relationships clearer and the story more focused. It has that feel of being in the world – and sometimes you see action from one character’s perspective and later find out about the same event from another’s.
The Kirkus review gives a good sense of the story: “The time is winter 1979, just after the start of the Iran Hostage Crisis, and the kids at K.I.N.S. Hebrew School are getting restless. Michelle Wasserstrom is a barnstorming rebel with blazing intelligence who goes through boyfriends and interests with ease and abandon; her sister Jill has a flickering romance with lifelong friend Muley Wills (one of the only black kids in the neighborhood, almost autistic in his brilliance: a character of glorious oddity), which will take up the bulk of the novel to spark. Other characters ping-pong through the densely layered pages, like snooty Lana Rovner, her Israeliophile brother Larry (figurehead of the nascent band Rovner!) and Michelle’s semi-slutty best friend Myra Tuchbaum.” Thinking back to as a book I read a few years ago, it’s the characters that are most prominent in my mind, as opposed to the outcome. Particularly in the relationship between Jill and Muley (with Muley being one of my favourite characters in fiction in the last 10 years or so), Langer shines in his depiction of teen life and relationships.
In some ways this is a straight up coming-of-age story but because of its scale and its large population it offers a twist on that type of tale. If you enjoy character driven tales with dry humour and a focus on growing up this may be a book for you. (Oh, and there’s a sequel too – The Washington Story, which true to form it seems, has nothing to do with the city of Washington, but features something else distinctly Chicagoan in its story – the election of Harold Washington as mayor.)