The year is 1979, and eighth grader Jill Wasserstrom lives in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood. A budding leftist, she spends Friday nights eagerly preparing to defend the Ayatollah Khomeini in her social studies class, or writing a subversive bat mitzvah speech that proclaims the Torah an “outdated, mythological document.” Meanwhile, her older sister, Michelle, smokes pot with her friends in Warren Park, while their father, Charlie, falls asleep on the couch with a beer.
In “Crossing California,” a new novel by the journalist and playwright Adam Lange, geography defines lives. California Avenue separates the grungy blocks surrounding the Wasserstroms’s walk-up apartment from the western homes, bedecked with trimmed shrubbery and AstroTurf. But the boundary is porous, and Langer weaves a smart, entertaining tale about the intersecting lives of characters on both sides of the street.
Slacker Michelle experiments with dating Larry Rovner, an earnest boy from across the avenue who may postpone Brandeis to record a “Jerusarock” album with original songs like “My Milk, Your Honey.” Charlie, finding himself lonely in the wake of his wife’s death from cancer, falls in love with a woman who lives in the “funny” ranch house they once had dreamed of buying in better days. But in this coming-of-age story, the most intractable boundaries are emotional — and many of them are Jill’s to cross.
She struggles to grasp the meaning of her mother’s death and to overcome a fatalistic sense that she can’t count on anyone to stick around — even her best friend, Muley Wills. While Muley turns to making semi-animated films to express his feelings for Jill, she hardly can watch them. Instead, consoling herself with late-night walks, she finds “no one to the left of her, no one to the right, only cars and skyscrapers behind her, only the cold, black lake in front,” and feels creepily alone. If Jill’s lucky, she just might find Muley on her way back home, while crossing California.