The Sixties, brought to you by smart Jewish kids from the 'burbs.
It’s a monumental job to chronicle and interpret any era, and even more so when that era has the messianic wildness and complexity of the 1960s and its decades-long aftermath.
The fabric of Jay Cantor’s admirable and monumentally long novel Great Neck
includes among its threads the Holocaust, growing up in the suburbs, first loves, the non-violent civil rights movement, the rise of Black Power and its rejection of non-violence, the anti-war movement, the Weather underground, the New York art scene, the New York sex scene (including S&M and slow death by AIDS), the women’s movement, Jewish assimilation and return, the Mob, Sabbatean kabbalah and a whole bunch of other emblems and excesses of days gone by – experienced mostly by an over-privileged bunch of brainy Long Island Jewish kids infatuated with their own talent and entitlement.
That's a lot, and so elaborate a texture defies easy synopsis. The central and most moving part of Cantor's story belongs to Beth, whose morose psychiatrist father, an ex-communist Holocaust survivor, has passed on to his beautiful and beloved only child the sense – shared by all her Great Neck pals – that they have been somehow “chosen” to bring justice and perfect community into the world.
Although Cantor's Great Neck (the town) sometimes seems “a continual bar mitzvah party, all sugary harmonies, no dissonance,” the Holocaust hangs above the suburban landscape like an inescapable cloud. Cantor's overall idea seems to be that the Holocaust and its outraged cry of “Never again!” to a world that had gone insane with oppression somehow sired, at least for assimilated and idealistic young Jews, both the excesses and fierce passion for social justice that fueled the 60s.
When Beth's lover Frank is killed in Mississippi during “Freedom Summer,” in 1964, the group of friends is inspired to even greater devotion to their passion for social justice. But only Beth possesses the mad, uncompromising will, colored with self-loathing, to morph herself, step by step, into a ferocious bomber heroine. (“If we were real revolutionaries,” she preaches, “we'd kill our parents. We'd kill white babies,” and she rejects with disgust her friends “march through the institutions” to success in their professions, choosing instead, like Swede Levov’s bomber daughter in Philip Roth's 1997 American Pastoral
, danger and abject poverty as an urban guerrilla.
The cast of characters includes sickly artist-genius Billy, whose comic books, known to millions, recreate the group of suburban friends as “mutant” X-Men-like superheroes who prefer their odd psychologies and abilities to normal life; homosexual Jeffrey, a friend of Andy Warhol, who bails Beth out with his million-dollar pop-art collection after her arrest for a first bombing; idealistic lawyer Jesse, who defends the thug who raped his wife; and lovely Laura, dead Frank's sister, who ultimately ends up marrying Bobby Brown, the black prosecutor of Beth's case. Cantor successfully dramatizes the black civil-rights leadership, the close interrelationship of the movement's Jews and blacks and the deterioration of black trust in whites. He is also terribly accurate in chronicling how the black street often enfeebled or destroyed its own heroes.
After the 60s messiah fails and the world returns to ordinary calculations, accounts must still be settled. Beth, getaway driver in a deadly failed robbery, is jailed; the robbery itself, she discovers, was a scam aimed at bankrolling a drug deal, not at supporting either the Revolution or the ghetto school to which she devoted her underground life. With the Great Neck friends reduced to their separate, painful lives in the 70s and early 80s, Laura – who as a young woman thought that her father's personal connections to Hubert Humphrey and Martin Luther King, Jr., meant that Great Neck “sat at the very center of America's moral universe” – finally understands that “there was nothing special about her or her friends …except that their sense of being special had made them more confused, more dangerous, than most.”
is savvy, generous, lively and entertaining, and Cantor, author of two previous novels, Krazy Kat
and The Death of Che Guevara
, excels at catching the intricate worlds encapsulated in individual, private moments. Nonetheless, this is not always an easy novel to read. Its length is daunting, its pacing sometimes uneven. Moreover, Cantor's many-faceted portrait, with its shifting points of view and a style that sometimes uses 60s lingo and the characters’ private language as shorthand, can weary by keeping the author too much on the page, as if the novel’s composition is part of the subject.
Also, and oddly, Cantor largely omits the world of spiritual seeking, New Age hooey and apolitical lovingkindness that was the other face of the “Counterculture.” Nobody in Great Neck
(the novel) turns on, tunes in and drops out; politics, self-love and a desire for social productivity define the protagonists.
During those years of the “social revolution,” a whole generation believed the world was changing in its very nature. Yes, we were wrong – partly. Yes, the revolution failed – largely. But what a glorious dream and spectacle it was while it lasted, even though it also harmed many of those caught up in it. In Great Neck
, Jay Cantor has created a partial but convincing portrait of that lengthened decade when the combination of passion, political extremism, naiveté and lack of personal restraint seemed both necessary and normal.