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THE SATURDAY READ

The idealism of the '70s

When the White House Was Ours; A Novel; Porter Shreve; Mariner: 280 pp., $12.95 paper

October 25, 2008|Diana Wagman

Porter Shreve's latest novel, "When the White House Was Ours," is an odd stew of nostalgia and affection, condescension and judgment. It begins in 1976. The narrator, 15-year-old Daniel, moves with his mother, father and sister to Washington, D.C., where his father plans to open an alternative high school in the large but dilapidated house of the title.

They are the family we recognize from countless novels: wacky and creative, always teetering on the precipice of financial ruin. Mom and Dad have teaching degrees, but they have lived a peripatetic life, and Daniel has little faith in this latest venture. Dad's heart is, as always, in the right place, but the realities of money, recruiting and the landlord's demands are not part of his vision. Throughout, Daniel acts as the more mature man of the family.

Enter Mom's brother, Linc, his wife, Cinnamon (nee Cynthia), and Cinnamon's lover, Tino. They have escaped from a failed commune, older but no wiser, driving across the country in a VW bug covered with ads for Salem cigarettes. Obviously they are on the lam. And the free love they proudly espouse leaves Linc unhappy and sullen. They represent the end of the '60s era hippies, and the trio is portrayed as pathetic and ridiculous. They decry "The Man" and use Abbie Hoffman's "Steal This Book" as their bible. They have no compunction about stealing or lying to get what they want, but in this whitewashed tale, they operate in only the friendliest and nonviolent of ways.

Will the school succeed? Will Mom and Dad divorce? Will Linc and his cohorts get arrested and ruin everything? These are the questions that keep the plot moving forward. There are laugh-out-loud scenes and wonderful passages about nuns and teenage sex and dumpster diving. Shreve is a good writer with many strengths. His previous two novels, "The Obituary Writer" and "Drives Like a Dream," were critical successes, but in those books, his characters are subtler and his stories more complex. The cast here borders on cliche: the Republican landlord, his rebellious daughter and particularly Quinn, the homeless black boy who becomes like one of the family.

Politics, specifically Jimmy Carter's campaign for the presidency, is a large part of this novel. Daniel is obsessed with the presidents. He writes his own biographies of each and is a fount of historical and arcane knowledge. It is his most unique feature -- funny, and well done. In one passage, the family gathers "to watch Texas Democrat Barbara Jordan become the first black woman to deliver a keynote address at a major party convention. . . . This period when we lived in Washington, in a white house not far from the real White House, will always live in my memory as the pivotal moment for my family, but it also marked my dawning awareness that our lives were converging with something larger than ourselves, a whole country at a crossroads." A crossroads? Or the brink of a hole we have been descending into ever since? It is depressing to read and remember the promise the country felt at the election of Carter. It is discouraging to know the changes wrought so violently starting in the '60s were not more lasting and significant. Hippies have become little more than Halloween costumes.

Of course, these things are not Shreve's fault. Still, he seems to be pointing a patronizing finger at the well-meaning liberals and shaking his head like Ronald Reagan as he says, "There you go again." Daniel's little sister demands a "normal school." Mom wants a nice house with furniture. Daniel misses the prep school where his father taught before. The overarching message of the novel is that the ideals of youth cannot be sustained -- nor should they be. We must grow up in all the conservative and traditional ways. Get a real job. Give up the dream; it's probably impossible anyway. By making the father's aspirations and the hippies' attempt at living off the grid laughable and sometimes stupidly dangerous, Shreve belittles both.

Finally, and unfortunately, the author leaves us with a sentimental and cloying present-day epilogue. Surprise, surprise! Everyone has become a respectable, contributing member of society -- that means financially sound. Even undereducated Linc has serendipitously founded a frozen yogurt empire. No one actually says the words "sell out," but they ring loud and clear.

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Diana Wagman, a Cal State Long Beach professor, teaches screenplay writing and is the author of the novels "Skin Deep," "Spontaneous" and "Bump."

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