Two years, 1979–81, in the lives of two Chicago families—but so much more.
In a reversal from the standard geographic/economic measuring stick in the Windy City—the closer you are to Lake Michigan, the richer you are—the North Side neighborhood of Rogers Park starts looking a whole lot nicer once you cross west over California Avenue. Fortunately, though, journalist/playwright Langer is less interested in mining the neighborhood’s socioeconomic strata (primarily Jewish, with divisions still quite sharp between those who are just middle-class and those who are the professionals, living across California) than he is in telling the story of the maturer-than-usual teenagers and strangely childlike adults of Roger Park’s Wasserstrom, Wills, and Rovner clans. The time is winter 1979, just after the start of the Iran Hostage Crisis, and the kids at K.I.N.S. Hebrew School are getting restless. Michelle Wasserstrom is a barnstorming rebel with blazing intelligence who goes through boyfriends and interests with ease and abandon; her sister Jill has a flickering romance with lifelong friend Muley Wills (one of the only black kids in the neighborhood, almost autistic in his brilliance: a character of glorious oddity), which will take up the bulk of the novel to spark. Other characters ping-pong through the densely layered pages, like snooty Lana Rovner, her Israeliophile brother Larry (figurehead of the nascent band Rovner!) and Michelle’s semi-slutty best friend Myra Tuchbaum. Although the gloom of the time period is signaled by events like the Hostage Crisis and the 1980 presidential election—in a metronomic rhythm throughout—they never overwhelm the characters. Langer’s gift is for layering each page with an almost obsessive level of detail—the Rogers Park streets are described with a near-geographic intensity, and the cultural references fly thick—without ever subsuming the characters, who shine brightly as they rocket into the 1980s.
Of epic scope, yet intimate in its accomplishments.