Cantor's 'Great Neck' -- into the 1960s, massively

January 05, 2003|By Lisa Simeone | By Lisa Simeone,Special to the Sun

Great Neck, by Jay Cantor. Knopf. 784 pages. $27.95.

Great Neck, N.Y., is as much a state of mind as a place in Jay Cantor's massive new historical novel. At first glance, it has everything you want in a novel: a big cast of well-defined characters, a plot that weaves and spins their lives over a period of years, a melding of fictional stories with historical fact -- in this case, the social and political upheaval of the 1960s.

It's a world you can plunge into. The question is, do you want to take that plunge with these particular characters? Arthur, Billy, Laura, Jeffrey, Beth and Jesse are the core group of upper-middle-class Jewish kids from Great Neck whose lives we follow over 20 years. The novel scurries back and forth in time, from the idealism and sexual fumblings of early adolescence to the increasing political activism and disparate paths of adulthood. Along the way, everyone from Martin Luther King to H. Rap Brown to Andy Warhol to Ho Chi Minh makes an appearance -- the whole cavalcade of '60s stars (or black holes, depending on your point of view).

Another character in the novel is Judaism itself -- its tenets as a moral philosophy, that is, rather than the trappings of religion. The obligation to "sanctify life," to "make justice," preoccupies several of the characters and informs their actions. Beth's father, Leo Jacobs, is a Holocaust survivor and now-famous psychiatrist who tries to instill in his daughter the lessons he learned in the camps: to value not merely survival, but life, to speak out against injustice and, apparently, to harbor guilt.

Somehow, guilt and love have become bound up in his life. His daughter will wait until her life is shattered by the murder of her boyfriend Frank, one of the Freedom Riders in Mississippi, before she chooses a course of action to reconcile the two.

But if Frank has followed the nonviolent route, Beth's sense of justice takes her somewhere else: She ends up joining the Weathermen, the radical group of students who believe that only violent confrontation can bring about change. The series of crimes they commit, from fights with police to bombings at Harvard and MIT, culminates in the Brinks truck robbery of 1981 and charges of murder.

We're expected to sympathize with Beth, as her friends do, but that's awfully hard. How can one take seriously someone's claim that she's "helping the black and brown people of the world" by blowing up labs? Or, when Beth, in jail, tells her father, "What I did, Dad, is I worked to make justice for the oppressed. So there will never be another Auschwitz." Her father, when Beth says this, puts his head down and rubs his eyes. So does the reader (that is, if you can prevent yourself from throwing the book across the room).

The lives of the Great Neck kids are also chronicled in comic books, transformed by Billy Green, a sensitive boy who is obsessed with the Holocaust. His way out of the guilt-love riddle, which torments many people in the book, is through his artistic talent. Yet the frequent interruption of the plot by snatches of comic book dialogue between Ninja B. (Beth), The Defender (Jesse), SheWolf (Laura), and the rest of the crew quickly become annoying, if not trivializing.

Cantor obviously has great affection for the genre, but these passages do not illuminate the novel; they just drag it on. And his zeal for capturing the feel of the '60s results sometimes in long stretches of tedium, as in the recounting of the kids' LSD trips. Pages and pages of adolescent prattle and blather about nothing. (Then again, that is realistic: When people are high, they tend to be entertaining only to themselves.)

The rich sense of tumult and confusion and heady new ideas of the '60s is slowed down in Great Neck by excessive rumination and, at times, self-consciously arty writing. The emphasis on the designation of being "chosen" -- i.e., Jews as "chosen people" -- also becomes wearying. One grasps this point early on, and the characters' continued beating of this drum only serves to reveal how blinkered they are.

Making justice is not about trumpeting one's specialness. The noble aspirations of Judaism stated early in the book become twisted and subverted. The Great Neck friends' tremendous affinity for guilt feels like one more indulgence, one more privilege, for these indulged and over-privileged kids. As even Arthur recognizes midway through the book, "The world had conspired to drive everyone in his generation mad with their own importance." Alas, there are still more than 300 pages to go after that.

Lisa Simeone is the host of NPR's World of Opera. Simeone has over 20 years of host and news experience in radio and television. Most recently, she was the host of NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. Simeone has also produced radio documentaries and served as the host of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Casual Concerts, carried on approximately 150 radio stations around the country.

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