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Sunday, November 19

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"Wolfy's hot dogs weren't kosher, especially not when slathered with cheese, but the temptation of a double cheese dog with everything and a large fries was too great to let Jewish doctrine interfere." --Crossing California

Every month the Gapers Block Book Club reads a work by a local author or a book about our fair city. This month we are reading Crossing California, the critically acclaimed debut novel from Chicago native Adam Langer. Crossing California has been compared to everything from Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and the works of Philip Roth to the short-lived television series "Freaks and Geeks." In fact, reviewers seemed to be stumbling over each other trying to come up with the best superlatives to describe this book.

The California of the novel's title refers not to the Sunshine State, but rather to California Avenue in Chicago, which divides the West Rogers Park neighborhood of the book's setting, separating the upper-middle-class families on the west from the working-class living east of the avenue.

Crossing California tells the connected stories of three families who live on different sides of this divide: the Wasserstroms, the Rovners and the Wills. Jill Wasserstrom is a precocious junior high school student who reads Saul Alinsky and shocks her teachers by defending the Ayatollah Khomeini in a school debate. Her sister, Michelle, is a high school drama club queen. Larry Rovner lusts after Michelle while he tries to decide between pursuing a career as a rock star with his band Rovner! or accepting a scholarship to Brandeis University. Meanwhile, the brillant and creative Muley Wills has a hopeless crush on Jill, which he expresses through a series of animated short films.

The events of the story take place during the 444 days of the Iranian hostage crisis, opening the day the hostages were taken at the American Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, and ending on Jan. 20, 1981, when they were released. Within this timeframe, Crossing California moves from one character to the next, as their lives intertwine, and Langer perfectly captures both the era and the West Rogers Park area, from Mather High School to Wolfy's hot dog joint on Peterson Avenue. The end result is, as James Atlas wrote in his review for the Tribune, "a novel that's at once comic and bleak, and that captures, in the stalled careers and thwarted longings and failed relationships of its characters, the pathos and sadness of life."

But it is also, at times, a very funny book. Even at the end of the novel, Langer takes pot shots at the current publishing trend of including ready-made reader guides with novels in the hopes of capturing the book club market. Langer provides his own mock reader's guide at the end of Crossing California, in which readers are asked — among other things — to ponder whether "Fidel, the dog that appears at the end of the novel, is a Christ figure."

Like the characters he portrays, author Adam Langer grew up in West Rogers Park, but he insists the story is not autobiographical. Langer attended Evanston Township High School, and earned a BA from Vassar College and an MA from the University of Illinois.

Throughout the 1990s, Langer developed a reputation as a prolific local playwright. More than a dozen of his plays were produced at Chicago theaters, and he even directed a film version of his play, The Blank Page. When he wasn't busy writing plays himself, Langer was a theater critic and features writer for the Chicago Reader. Then, from 1998 until its demise in 2003, Langer acted as senior editor for Book magazine.

These days Adam Langer spends his time shuttling between New York City and Bloomington, Ind., where his wife teaches at Indiana University. But his parents still live in the West Rogers Park neighborhood, and while Crossing California may not be autobiographical, Langer told the Chicago Tribune that when he returns to Chicago to visit, he often stops at Wolfy's for "a hot dog with everything."

Sources

"Adam Langer." Contemporary Authors Online. Thomson Gale, 2005.

Atlas, James. "North Side story," Chicago Tribune, 11 July 2004.

Reaves, Jessica. "Author wrote what he knew," Chicago Tribune, 11 July 2004.

~*~

Join the Gapers Block Book Club! Just sign up for the email list for news, announcements and more. This month we are reading Crossing California by Adam Langer. We will be meeting to discuss the book on Monday, July 11, at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. The meeting will begin at 7:30pm.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a Chicago librarian. She welcomes questions and topic suggestions for her column at . Due to the volume of email received, she may not reply to every query, but you may be contacted if your question is selected for the column.

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