The road from innocence to experience

No one escapes the wit or wrath of Adam Langer's satire of Chicago families in the late 1970s

Adam Langer's debut novel, "Crossing California," should come with a warning label: "Abandon all nostalgia, ye who enter here." His story about three Chicago families during the waning years of Jimmy Carter's presidency is brutally funny. But any fondness the fashion industry may be tempting you to feel for that goofy period is stripped away by Langer's acerbic re-creation of the era when America withered under the Iran hostage crisis, high school drug use spiked, and teenage sexual experience began to accelerate dramatically.

The "California" in his title refers to California Avenue, which runs through Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood, separating upper-middle-class Jewish families from working-class Jewish families. The novel's immersion in this enclave makes it particularly appealing to Jewish readers, but others will feel no more excluded than non-Greeks watching "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." Langer drives so deeply into the silly and profound qualities of this group that he strikes the bedrock beneath all quarters of American culture.

What might exclude some readers, however, is the novel's sexual content. The libidinous teen antics that Tom Wolfe chronicled in "Hooking Up" (2000) and Catherine Hardwicke showed in "Thirteen" (2003) are described in "Crossing California" with relentless attention. Presumably, Wolfe and Hardwicke were raising the alarm for an adult audience happily in the dark about these goings-on, but in such a consistently funny novel as "Crossing California," this graphic material is difficult to interpret.

You're thinking, it's difficult to interpret only for someone writing in a stodgy newspaper, but Langer's comic treatment of these characters belies a surprisingly harsh moral outrage. It's the same complicated attitude on display in Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" or Tom Perrotta's "Little Children." These aggressive satirists employ a laser that incinerates their amoral characters even as it illuminates them with a glare that's sometimes hard to watch.

Though packed with the social and political upheaval of the era, "California Crossing" stays closely focused on the lives of a small group of teenagers blundering toward maturity while most of their parents regress to adolescence. Langer's ability to create such dead-on characters is matched only by his ingenuity in tying them together so cleverly.

Michelle Wasserstrom may be one of the most memorable high school characters ever. Smart, foul-mouthed, and histrionic, she storms through like the survivor of a lost dynasty, mocking everything but her own ridiculousness. Her biggest disappointment is that the culture has broken down so completely that "it seemed nearly impossible to rebel in any way that wasn't somehow secondhand."

For blinding vanity, she's matched by hypersexed Larry Rovner, who plots on graph paper the likelihood of sleeping with his various fantasy girlfriends. He's a high school senior destined for Brandeis if his Jewish rock band doesn't take off. (Songs like "Your Gelt Makes Me Guilty" suggest success won't come quickly.)

His parents are a catalog of parental ills. Mr. Rovner is still trying to pin down his sexual orientation; Mrs. Rovner is a psychologist who hates her patients and thinks the best way to raise independent children is to withhold all affection. Not surprisingly, their seventh-grade daughter is a craven perfectionist, perpetually shocked by others' transgressions, and addicted to shoplifting.

These young people race along with no direction except a firm sense of entitlement and a dread of embarrassment. More than the alcohol and drugs, the most damaging influence coursing through their veins is a highly distilled mixture of cynicism and narcissism. These kids take nothing their parents say seriously (for good reason); their schools are towers of irrelevancy; the world they're about to inherit teeters between the inanity of "Three's Company" and the terror of Mutually Assured Destruction.

In the middle of this mess is Michelle's sister, Jill Wasserstrom, an eerily precocious seventh-grader, stunned into despair by her mother's death. She's clearly the spiritual and emotional center of the novel, burdened with enough irony and intelligence to make school unbearable. She keeps herself awake by shocking her dull-witted teachers with essays like "Ayatollah Khomeini, My Hero." In darker moments, she struggles to be an atheist, all the while haunted by her sense of the awesome permanence of God.

Her only friend is an equally brilliant black boy who has no use for school. He spends his days manufacturing items from alley junk to raise money for his mom. Eventually, he starts making short animated films, wildly creative allegories he hopes will make Jill fall in love with him. (Terrified of romance by the disasters all around her, she responds to him through the mail with cool, critical analysis of his films' thematic inconsistencies.)

They make a strange, heartbreaking couple, a locus of angst and spiritual persistence, made all the more poignant by their age and helplessness. I wish they weren't so often crowded off stage by the host of ignoble characters that Langer is determined to eviscerate in this wickedly witty novel. He's so good at social satire that it draws him away from what he does even better: the tender portrayal of smart, lonely people struggling to cobble together some meaning. But if the fireworks in this debut drown each other out now and then, they're launched from a storehouse of creative energy that's sure to keep dazzling us for a long time.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.

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