Whisky & Culture

Crossing California

Jefferson Chase reviews the tale of three families on the move
By Jefferson Chase
I was born in 1966, which means that like all other people may age, I came into the world early enough to remember the 1970s but too late to actually enjoy any of the fun.

Fortunately Adam Langer (born in 1967) has written a novel for my specific mini-generation. Crossing California tells the stories of three Jewish families in Chicago as 1979 segues way into 1980.

But Crossing California is also more than that, thanks to the comic strength of its characters. Take, for example, young Jill Wasserstrom plotting to introduce a subversive note into the Bat Mitzvah her somewhat simple-minded, salt-of-the-earth father insists on throwing. She practices her speech:

"She would tuck a hip flask of Wild Turkey into one garter"


He was nearly moved to tears when Jill concluded, thanking her parents, her rabbis, her teachers, her family, and her friends, “without whom I would not be here before you, inviting you to join me for sheet cake and Canadian Club.”

If Jill has something of Lisa Simpson, her older sister Michelle is a promiscuous, stoned, female version of Bart. With the horrors of the school prom approaching, she decides that parody is the best form of self-defense:

She would wear the sluttiest prom dress she could track down at the Salvation Army, and tuck a hip flask of Wild Turkey into one garter and a joint in the other…She wanted to slowdance to every dreadful Journey and Billy Joel song, get all teary and tell Larry, “This should be our song.” She wanted to have sex in the backseat of a car and say “Please be gentle with me.”

Langer isn’t afraid to take his fiction into wince-inducing territory – on his website, he reveals that he wrote parts of the novel while blasting Boston and Kansas.

Over the course of the novel, the hardness of the “Just Say No” 1980s begins to encroach on the hedonistic rebellion of the ‘70s. One character who embodies the transition is a representative from Yale who gives Michelle a college interview, pretends to be horrified by sexual harassment and then asks her out.

Michelle deals with it, of course, in style:

She batted her eyelashes at him and asked when Yale made its decisions, was it the twelfth of April? Something like that, Bruce said. Well, then, why didn’t they have dinner on the thirteenth, Michelle asked…

If I could bring any one fictional character to real life, I fear it would have to be Michelle Wasserstrom. Even if she’d now be 50 years old, I’m sure she’d be a blast to hang out with.

The setting I grew up in was completely unlike Jewish Chicago, and nonetheless, Crossing California brought back memory after memory. How creepy those college interviews were, and how excited I was when I finally set off for university to enjoy the freedoms of adulthood. Shortly after I got there the title story of Time magazine was about AIDS. Adam Langer revived my recollections about what might have been.