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The burden of survival, borne by a generation

Great Neck, A Novel, Jay Cantor, Alfred A. Knopf: 710 pp., $27.95

January 12, 2003|Leslie Brody | Leslie Brody is the author of the memoir "Red Star Sister: Between Madness and Utopia."

"Great Neck" is a big, brilliant, social novel swarming with laments. So many, I wonder whether Jay Cantor, having handed off the weight, is sitting up yet, sipping a little consomme. His book traverses several decades, opening in 1978, as six childhood friends from Great Neck, Long Island, reunite in a courtroom. One of them, Beth Kaplan, has been accused of setting bombs a decade earlier to protest the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Now, 10 years later, she seems a casualty of bad timing, the float that arrives long after the parade has passed.

This sense of how history can strand a person is one of Cantor's accomplishments. As Beth's trial commences, Jimmy Carter is president and Ronald Reagan's around the corner. The friends are all in their 30s and, apart from Beth (who views conventional society as a dot on the far horizon), trying and failing in marriages and professions. Vietnam has been over for three years. The Second World War ended just before they were born, its lost Jews, like an army of dybbuks, inhabiting Beth and her friends.

Through Cantor's lens, the Great Neck in which Beth and her friends grow up looks like a map of a diaspora: artists this way; the poor, exiles and Displaced Persons that way; the road to the garment district over there; this road to the couch; this direction, ladies and gentleman, to forget the gas if you can.

It is an outpost in which baseball is a religion, psychiatry is a religion, making money is a religion, socialism a dying god and new varieties of Judaism are budding. It is a place where Holocaust survivors seek refuge, bob up and barely survive.

Finally, it's a place where Beth and her young friends come to feel responsible for racism and war, and, if not consciously, for the deaths of millions of European Jews who died before they were born, then for the protection and comfort of those who are trying to move on. "Once the tattoos meant we weren't human, but animals. Now, not humans, but angels," one survivor says.

Beth and her friends forge their powerful and unifying bond in 1963, when one boy, older than the others, is murdered while registering voters in Mississippi. The others, still in junior high, pledge their lives to do acts of justice in his name. One friend will grow up to defend death row convicts (and Beth in her trial); another becomes a doctor on skid row; another a social historian; another ends up an aesthete, flailing about. Each of them full of passion, then doubt, then rage.

Cantor pops from one character's mind to another. Often, you feel you are in the middle of a round of voices, multiplied streams of consciousness, fast and furious, a technique perhaps dizzying at first but ultimately profoundly satisfying. There is a feeling throughout of simultaneity, of lives, decades apart, overlapping and converging. Each character in his or her own way is caught between unpicked knots and the panic of an ultra-examined life. Cantor does with language what a geologist does with transparencies, setting one page upon the other, so you see through a tunnel of time. He is, let it be said, taken with illustrations, literary and artistic.

One of Beth's friends is a cartoonist, whose drawings turn the friends' adventures into a wildly successful comic book series of crime fighters called "The Outsiders." Sadly, this cartoonist doesn't get much pleasure from his art or his own celebrity. What kicks he and his pals do find, apart from some routine sex and drugs, are confined to the rapture that comes from their sense of conviction, in other words, that they are absolutely doing the right thing.

Cantor illustrates and analyzes in exquisite detail the myriad ecstasies of the romantic 1960s. Here's the voice of one of Beth's cohorts, a teenager on trial in the later years of that decade for allegedly bombing a university laboratory he believed was doing research for the Pentagon; doing a riff on the stand on the glory of sacrifice: "I alone, I alone, I alone will suffer, resounded inside him -- the words making him feel a lovely mixture of righteous power and pleasant, deep woundedness." This character does a jail term. He's the only character with a job at Microsoft when the novel ends.

Partway though the book, Cantor's cast extends to some young black Freedom Riders. The story of their effort to extend the vote, their sacrifices and courage in the face of persecution and brutality in Mississippi, is one that can't be told enough. From nonviolence to the Black Panthers to something resembling the Symbionese Liberation Army, Cantor's characters are everywhere, illustrating modes of political engagement from innocence to experience to exhaustion.

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