In Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood in 1979, California Avenue divides the prosperous west side from the struggling east. Langer's brilliant debut uses that divide as a metaphor for the changes that occur in the lives of three neighborhood families: the Rovners, the Wasserstroms and the Wills. There are two macro-stories—the courtship of Charlie Wasserstrom and Gail Shiffler-Bass, and the alienation of Jill Wasserstrom from her best friend, Muley Wills—but what really counts here is the exuberance of overlapping subplots. One pole of the book is represented by Ellen Rovner, a therapist whose marriage to Michael dissolves over the course of the book (much to Ellen's relief: she's so distrustful of Michael that she fakes not having an orgasm when they make love). If Ellen embodies cool, intelligent disenchantment, her son, Larry, represents the opposite pole of pure self-centeredness. As Larry sees it, his choice is between becoming a rock star with his band, Rovner!, and getting a lot of sex—or going to Brandeis, becoming successful and getting a lot of sex. The east side Wasserstrom girls exist between these poles: Michelle, the eldest, is rather slutty, flighty and egotistical, but somehow raises her schemes (remaining the high school drama club queen, for instance) to a higher level, while Jill, a seventh-grade contrarian who shocks her Hebrew School teachers with defenses of Ayatollah Khomeini and quotes Nkrumah at her bat mitvah, is still emotionally dazed from her mother's death. Muley, who woos Jill with his little films, wins the heart of the reader, if not of his intended. Chicago produces a mix of intellectualism and naturalism like no other city, and Langer has obviously fed on that. His steely humanism balances the corruptions of ego against an appreciation of the energies of its schemes, putting him firmly in the tradition of such Chicago writers as Bellow and Dybek. Agent, Marly Rusoff . (June)
Forecast: Langer, a former senior editor at Book magazine, paints on a big canvas, making local dramas mirror national shifts, from the rise of the Reagan Republicans to the last bloom of a vital youth culture; fans of literate, ambitious fiction will love this novel. National author tour; rights sold to Finland, Germany and the Netherlands.