Posted by: Gregg | May 21, 2008

Crossing California – Adam Langer

Special thanks to everyone who came out to the KC Blogger Book Group last night – much fun was had, as well as some excellent discussion. I’m taking solicitations for the next book to read and discuss, and if you have any suggestions, send ’em my way.

The book itself is a sprawling novel about the residents of a Jewish neighborhood in Chicago as the 1970s were drawing to a close and the 1980s were just beginning. In what can be described as a print version of a Robert Altman flick, there are no main characters to focus on or who drive the narrative – characters wander in and out of the frame, connect with secondary characters, who then go onto meet other people in the neighborhood, and everything seems to circle ’round back again. Even though the book is focused on the residents of a particular neighborhood, this novel is all about boundaries. The “California” of the title refers to a dividing line between the working-class and middle-class sections of the neighborhood. As characters cross California Street, they enter into a similar yet very different world. Race is a large dividing line as well; the traditionally Jewish neighborhood is defensive about inroads made by other minorities, and a not-so-subtle thread of racism runs through several characters as they see their beloved community change.

If you like fleshed-out characters, this is certainly the book for you – Crossing California has a cast of what seems like thousands, each one well-cared for, and the book is tremendously thick with plots for each and every one of them. Most of the characters are Jewish high-schoolers focused on sex, pot, school, alcohol, their futures, music, sex and pot – think of the film “Dazed and Confused” as told by Philip Roth. Adults are present, and in most cases they are just as hapless and as searching for meaning as the kids are. Crossing California is a coming-of-age novel, but don’t think of it as a serious one; there are several bitingly funny passages and situations.

One thing the novel does not do is tie everything up in a bow for you – things are often left ambiguous and uncertain, just like in real life, which may not be satisfying if you want that sort of thing out of your literature. My opinions of several characters changed while I was reading – again, like in real life.

I liked Crossing California, but I didn’t love it, however it has much to recommend it.


  1. “In what can be described as a print version of a Robert Altman flick…”

    That’s a great way to describe it. I picked up this book on a whim a while back. That usually spells disaster for me, but I ended up really liking it. I thought the kids in the book were unusually well-written — smart, interesting, and likable, but ultimately believable as kids.

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