Crossing California (review from the Charleston Post and Courier -- Sunday, August 8, 2004)
"Crossing California," Adam Langer's smart, crowded and often funny debut novel, centers on the intersecting lives of three Chicago families from Nov. 4, 1979 to Jan. 20, 1981, the exact dates of the hostage crisis in Iran.
While the hostage crisis background might suggest certain automatic themes -- entrapment and helplessness, for instance -- Langer doesn't really go there. Instead, he gives us a medley of perspectives and a range of dependencies. If 1980 is a standard dividing line between the world of the Sixties -- John Lennon died that year -- and the "morning in America" that followed with Ronald Reagan's election, Langer is at least as interested in the divide between innocence and experience that frames this coming-of-age novel.
The California of the title is California Avenue in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood. West of California live affluent Jews, like the Rovners, whose home turns out to be a nest of dysfunction. Ellen Rovner, therapist and mother, has come to see all humans, including those in her own family, as "sexually frustrated, self-deluded liars." Over the course of the novel, she breaks away from Michael Rovner, doctor, father and "rabid pornophile." Their children are Larry, the self-absorbed "Jerusarock jock," who will enter Brandeis unless his band makes it big with hits such as "(My Loving Ain't) Always Orthodox" and "Your Gelt Makes Me Guilty," and Lana, a kleptomaniac eighth-grader with an eating disorder.
East of California are the Wasserstroms and Wills. Charlie Wasserstrom is the hapless, job-hopping father of Michele and Jill, wise daughters who are mostly raising themselves since their mother's death. Michele is a cynical comedian and school drama queen who spends most of her time smoking pot and dodging classwork until she scores in the 98th percentile on the PSAT. Jill is sharp and moody, a quietly rebellious eighth-grader who closes her bat mitzvah speech with a cry of "Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh."
Still further east are Deirdre Wills, who cleans house for the Rovners and her son, Muley Scott Wills, dearest of all the children. Muley is an enterprising, resilient dreamer who makes gadgets and films, enters contests, and schemes to win the love of Jill Wasserstrom.
On this packed stage, as characters intersect and diverge, we come to see how much one person can mean to another. Langer's achievement is to make them matter to us.
The Washington Years (review from the Miami Herald - August 28, 2005)
Adam Langer's delightful sequel to Crossing California is not an exposé about the nation's capital but a remarkably vivid and descriptive portrait of Chicago in the 1980s, when Harold Washington managed to defeat the Daley Democratic machine to become the city's first black mayor.
As seen through the eyes of Langer's sprawling, multiracial cast, Chicago -- specifically the conservative Jewish neighborhood of West Rogers Park -- evolves as its intricately crafted, fascinating residents try to adjust to the inevitable change. Langer, who has a sharp eye for the absurdities of family relations and inner-city life, grew up in the community, and his intimate understanding permeates every thoughtful description, every pitch-perfect joke, every delicious cadence of dialogue. He immerses us in the city's culture, using significant historical details as counterpoints to his characters' lives: the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Challenger explosion and the reappearance of Halley's comet.
The story opens in 1982, a year after the events of Crossing California. Muley Scott Wills, ''the coolest eighth grader'' and budding filmmaker, is now in high school, fretting over the difficulty of creating art with an impact and fooling around with slutty classmate Connie on a school trip to Cape Canaveral. The unsettled crankiness of Muley's sort-of girlfriend Jill Wasserstrom has blossomed into passionate activism. She supports Washington's candidacy and writes for the aggressive school paper, which is ``midway between extracurricular activity and cult.''
Jill's sister Michelle, attending college in New York, disdains politics but does care about acting, and so she returns home to star in the atrocious low-budget film The Godfathers of Soul. As cynical as ever, she's surprised to find herself in love with the ambitious director, Mel Coleman, who is too old for her and not available anyway, as he is dating Muley's mom.
Michelle's ex-boyfriend Larry, creator of the rock band Rovner!, is also in college, with a fiancee who is determined to turn his songs of Jewish teen angst into a Broadway musical. Larry's torn between doing what he's supposed to do -- marry a nice Jewish girl, have kids, be successful at something -- and the horror of seeing his work ''emasculated.'' One line from ('My Lovin' Ain't) Always Orthodox has been revised from ''Take a walk with me, Zipporah/I'll show you something you won't find in your Torah'' to ''Let's stay up all night reading Torah,'' and Larry is not sure he can live with the change.
Change, though, is the constant with which these ordinary but gripping characters must cope. Muley and Jill must leave high school fantasies behind; Michelle and Larry must make serious choices for the future. Their parents need to make some adjustments, too. Langer's humor is as sharp as ever, and he imbues these gropings for identity with wit and a playful sense of fun. The Washington Story may be set in Chicago, but in the end it's universally appealing, an insightful vision of our comical, sad, infuriating, wonderful lives.