By Jay Cantor Alfred
A. Knopf, 701 Pages, $27.95
Jay Cantorís Great Neck aims to do in fiction what
The Big Chill did in film and Rhino Records does in
rock & roll: summarize a period, a zeitgeist. Fiction
suffers, however, in Cantorís wringing hands, because Great
Neck, an encyclopedic effort to contain and explain the
í60s and í70s, fails at both. Far too long, it contains several
potentially betteróand shorterónovels.
Noble of intent and overwhelmingly ambitious, Great Neck
is a book one reads more with dread than admiration. The writing
can be engrossing, the psychological insights acute. Certain
relationships are even intriguing, and the basic premise is
unimpeachable: It tries to examine how growing up privileged,
Jewish and intellectual on Long Island blended with the birth
of the civil rights movement.
Unfortunately, Cantor doesnít know where to draw the line
in either character or concept. Peppering his themes with
meditations on popular cultureóspecifically, comic books,
along with Andy Warhol and his homosexual milieuónot only
dilutes the book, it seems too trendy.
Oh, yes, the plot. It involves Weather Underground heroine
Beth Jacobs and her doomed lover Frank Jaffe and Frankís sister
Laura and Lauraís husband Arkey Kaplan and mulatto attorney
David Watkins and firebrand Sugar Cane and asthmatic, charismatic
black leader Jacob Battle and Special Agent Olson and sociologist-philosopher
Herbert Marcuse and Marcuseís wife Inge and Mark Rudd and
characters both fictional and factual. It feels like a cast
Neck is a kind of roman ŗ clef, an exploration of the
dynamics that twined the Weather Underground with the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Students for a Democratic
Society and the Black Panthers. It is about how the most noble
causes are corrupted, as when Beth is involved in the killing
of a bank guard as part of a scheme to rob money to fund an
alternative school. Itís got issues to burn.
The rub is, Cantor can write. Take this description of Arthur
ďArkeyĒ Kaplan, just out of the hospital where heís been treated
for skin cancer. Itís from the beginning of the book, and
itís so good you want to continue reading:
Arkey wore his long-sleeved shirt buttoned to the top so he
couldnít tickle his weak-willed skin. He had a white scarf
around his neck and a Panama on his head, and he even kept
his hands in his pockets. Moisture bloomed under his arms,
formed a fragrant acid-and-roses river with the Guerlain cologne
he wore to mask his continual sweating.
The detail is so delicious and precise, you think Kaplan might
be a major character. Turns out heís minor, a Cantor proxy,
a commentator on and absorber of events that heís willing
to consider but wonít dare try to influence.
The pivot of the novel is the murder of Frank Jaffe in Mississippi.
Itís an echo of the historical murder of civil rights workers
Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney in Philadelphia,
Miss., in 1964. Frankís killing drives Beth to the Weather
Underground, where she befriends various chemists and ultimately
has a daughter. Unfortunately, Beth is busted, brought to
trial, and sentenced. Her story gives the plot what little
drive it has. Her story is also far too deeply woven into
this novelís fabric to breathe.
The way Cantor swings between the Long Island group and the
black activists, who are largely centered in Boston, accurately
reflects the intellectual crosscurrents of the times. But
the swing becomes enervating: Every time one level of the
story gains momentum, Cantor turns his attention to the other.
More discipline and straightforwardness might have made Great
Neck as exciting as the times it aims to portray. Ultimately,
however, Great Neck, despite an elegant, heartfelt
ending, isnít worth the time and focus it demands.