The Washington Story
By Adam Langer
Riverhead Books, 416 pages, $24.95.
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Once may have been an honest mistake, but twice, it must be a trend. Adam Langer’s second novel is titled “The Washington Story,” though it has little to do with our nation’s capital — just as his debut, “Crossing California,” took place entirely outside the confines of the Golden State.
In fact, both books are intimately tied to the gritty charm of the characters’ hometown, Chicago. Vividly chronicling a time and place now relegated to the half-remembered past, Langer’s novel is so distinctly bound up with its locale that even when its characters leave Chicago, they seem to exist in a mere not-Chicago, a space outside their center of gravity from which a better view of the center may be obtained. Like Roth’s Newark, N.J., or Updike’s suburbia, Langer uses Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood as a mirror into the hearts of his characters, and into the heart of the country as a whole. California and Washington may be reference points, but only inasmuch as Langer’s novels are intended as windows into the entirety of 1980s America.
“The Washington Story” continues a trajectory mapped by its predecessor, following the lives and travails of a clique of Hebrew school graduates and their friends as they make their way through the stiff Reaganite head winds of the mid-1980s. Where “Crossing California” confined itself to the 444 days of the Iranian hostage crisis — seen from the two sides of Chicago’s California Avenue — “Washington” inserts itself into a similar political framework: the term in office of the larger-than-life Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor. Beyond its title, “Washington” has little to do with the world at large, beyond the tiny reverberations of world events in the quotidian lives of its characters. Like any good novelist writing in the shadow of “Ragtime,” Langer knows better than to insert his characters, “Zelig”-like, into the glare of major world events; instead, we have Jill Wasserstrom’s analysis of the shattering impact of the death of Konstantin Chernenko on Kremlin politics getting spiked by her college newspaper in favor of a concert review, and the 1983 mayoral race between Washington and moderate Jewish Republican Bernard Epton, which split the West Rogers Park Jewish ghetto down the middle.
“Washington” zooms in closer, and pulls back further, than its forerunner, concentrating almost entirely on sisters Michelle and Jill Wasserstrom, and Jill’s on-and-off boyfriend Muley Wills. Michelle, having left Chicago for New York University, does the struggling-actress thing while unexpectedly finding herself involved with Muley’s mother’s boyfriend Mel, a mediocre aspiring filmmaker. Mel’s idea of a brilliant piece of film is to have Al Capone confuse some G-men who come to arrest him with mild-mannered Hasidim he met earlier, exclaiming “Good yontiff, boys,” before they take him away.
Jill, so uptight she accuses her own brain of political incorrectness, breaks off with Muley because of her infatuation with co-journalist Will Sullivan, an intense idealist too in love with the sound of his own voice to realize that his girlfriend is a closet lesbian who wants to jump Jill’s bones more than he does. Later, Jill takes up with Kenny, a stereotypical scion of a New York Jewish law-firm partner who enjoys dressing like a senior citizen and lecturing her on her responsibilities. And Muley finds himself as a filmmaker while creating a life for himself separate from his forlorn past as the child of a struggling single parent.
Langer’s book begins like a politically-committed version of “Dawson’s Creek,” with precocious teenagers debating the efficacy of tax increases, but it soon departs for more fertile ground. Each of the characters, in fits and starts, discovers the truth of something Michelle points out to her sister: “Taking charge had little to do with talking about it; it was just something you did.” “The Washington Story” is about the difficulty of seizing control of one’s life, burdened by history, family, relationships and expectations. None of the characters know whether they truly want what they think they want — whether it is a profession, a lover or a hometown.
Langer has a great ear for language, describing one high school bad boy “flipping his hair out of his eyes with reverse nods” and another’s “Jerusarock-jock pose,” looking “like a Semitic Mick Jagger with an Israeli flag cape instead of a Union Jack.” Intimately familiar with the lies and betrayals of growing up, as well as the occasional triumphs, “The Washington Story” manages to be a book that, page by page, is an impressive feat of social comedy while remaining, overall, an assured drama of impending adulthood.
Even the novel’s triumvirate of protagonists must ultimately take a back seat to Chicago, the engine that makes this novel go, and to the bonds formed in childhood. Pulled in every possible direction by their different goals and differing circumstances, all of the book’s characters still find themselves magnetically attracted back to their roots, and to the people they knew before they became themselves. Over the course of the narrative’s five years, some of adolescence’s idealism may have been burned away by the flames of adult experience, but it is replaced by the knowledge that each of them has become exactly what they are.
Saul Austerlitz is a freelance writer in New York City.