[On-going w/the most recent posts last. Spoiler alerts apply]
The opening chapter and its slow unraveling of family description brings to mind the novel “The Corrections.” There, Franzen gave each sibling from the Lambert family their own volume within the multi-part novel. There were two sons and a daughter, all young career-working adults. Whereas in “Crossroads,” the siblings of the Hildebrandt clan are teenage and below, growing up in the 1970s, and we are introduced to them in sequential chapters. There is one daughter (homecoming queen-type Becky) and three sons, two of whom are in trouble already with drugs and poor life choices.
A problem right off is they are the children of a pastor, Russ, a strong socially active liberal who has a weak innate sense of guidance and self-control. As the story goes in the early stages, the kids drift away from Dad and his older ways, a human turnoff, and become followers of a progressive church group leader named Ambrose, who practices realism over idealism. It doesn’t take long for conflicts to show up.
The opening chapter’s style is notable in that it’s framed artfully within the context of an oncoming storm. Gray clouds at first then ominous snow falling at the end. The storm keeps brewing into subsequent chapters. Becky is changing her ways, demonstrating how imperfect she is, how possessive and self-centered. Perry is wasting his high IQ and drifting deeper into drugs; and Clem is 18 and headed to the Vietnam war zone, after having been addicted to sex with a “mouse” of a girl who he abandons. The parents are pious on the surface and morally unstable underneath. Mama Marion hovers but tends to overlook. Only young Judson seems safe so far.
Things are about to break apart. Everyone is looking for wrong or right, approaching or in the midst of a crossroads, get it? The sun is ripping red gashes in the sky. The Crossroads church group has a mutiny during an Arizona field trip, and father and son face some truths. Patiently and without a load of purple prose, Franzen has revealed a family slowly becoming embroiled in crisis. Yet it’s early. It’s a long book, and only the first of a projected trilogy covering a generation of Hildebrandts.
The pastor’s wife’s (Marion) chapter uses the narrative format of a discussion between patient and psychiatrist. Her long, self-pitying accounts are met with a few neutral lines from Sophie, the head doctor. Lots of pain is accounted for, with a hint of even more still under the wraps. The world is tainted by Marion’s desperation and pessimism. There is little humor in the exchange, much less a friendly vibe or even an intimate one, unlike, say, the sexual romp that develops in the patient-pyschologist setup in Larry McMurtry’s novel Duane’s Depressed.
Franzen, God bless him, is hitting his novelist’s stride now, delving into the personal history of one of his main suburban characters, presenting her case and allowing the reader to reach their own judgments. It’s more difficult to do than it sounds. He is a novelist following his heart and gut about these people, baring them rather than drawing and delivering pat, intellectual profiles.
More stabs of pain and misery come again in the subsequent chapter in which Russ, Marion’s husband, finds he can’t cope with the frank revelations by his wannabe mistress. He’s in a game he isn’t equipped for. Hints of more moral catastrophe. The scene becomes hellish. The two are quarreling inside Russ’ sedan, and soon we are half-expecting to see Russ break down and weep. Or will he feign bravado and put on a different kind of act? Yet to be seen. Meanwhile for the two would-be lovers, there’s no convenient means of dodging issues, and beyond the wiper blades the snow continues to fall.
Franzen’s instincts may have told him it’s time for a lighter, sillier chapter. And we get that next with Tanner and Becky giving us a flat and predictably schmaltzy episode of Teenagers Playing Little Games about Love. Snowballs hurled by “juvies” against Tanner’s VW bus don’t add much. The dialog is MST3000 material, ripe for lampooning. Tanner talks big boy garage band talk, and Becky is jealous of their female singer. Zzzz. One wonders if Franzen is going to suddenly go horror movie on us and send in hungry zombies to eat the teenagers and end the scene.
Becky says it herself: “Everything has gone to shit.” Her return to the house (aka “the parsonage”) offers some redemption for the sin of bad editing. She and Perry seem to come to a lukewarm detente in their conflicting sister-brother relationship. Meanwhile, in two days it’ll be Christmas Eve. And Mom (Marion) is late returning from her shrink appointment. Uh-oh. Why?
Visions of this novel as a series on Streaming TV disturbed my fictive dream, at least for a moment. Please God, no, I prayed. Tell us the author is virtuous, if none of his cast are, and he doesn’t care about such commercial notions.
As expected, the dramatic events intersect, and all sorts of tangled problems occur. We are given a buffet of respect-resentment and love-hate between characters in conflict. People play some dirty games to put down those they don’t like. Our emotional response, the one Franzen artfully evokes, is to feel like we need to choose which side we are on. And, we wonder, does virtue matter or is goodness just plain out of date? Does renunciation equate to evil?
Russ vs. Frances Cottrell. Perry vs. Becky. Then Perry vs. astounded clergymen at a mannered party when he gets teenage drunk on a whisky-laden punchbowl and has a meltdown (a superior Franzen twist, reminding me of the crazy effects of the miracle drug aboard the cruise ship in Corrections.) Then Becky gets stoned, and Laura bullies her. Becky sees the light of heaven when the pot kicks in. Mama Marion changes her ways, smokes Luckies, and toughens up. And so on.
The narrative lures us ahead, episode by episode. Even when we find some of the people loathsome, or the scenes didactic and corny. The novel offers us situations where the message of literature battles with its like-ability. Yet on we go, some Christian chord perhaps struck inside us. But how bogus is it? What is wrong? Is it all so gravity-bound to church camps and horny pastors and earthly fools that we miss the entire point of a God up there in the sky?
3/4 of the way through this heavy tome. In the story there is nearly a foot of snow on the ground. Meaning, I’d lost sense of how compressed the timeline is. Flakes fell in chapter one. There’s been a lot of chapter shifts and overlap of chronological piece parts.
Events are colliding and reaching combustion. Russ, Marion, and Becky have traded their virtues for self-satisfaction. They are clawing against the side of a cliff, trying to hold on.
Instances of Christian fellowship abound, and now Franzen kicks it up another level to moments of bible story parallels. The washing of feet is a big one. The duping of a man by a designing woman, check. Sacrifice of self for another, check. The wages of sin, check. Turn the other cheek, check. Love and forgiveness, check. And so on. It may sound facile, and at times reading it is like a dip into some TV show sanctioned for its wholesomeness and message. But Franzen is up to something else, it seems. Knowing this is part one of a trilogy leads me to suspect we may be left hanging, at least on certain items.
Marion’s new compulsion for Lucky Strikes emulates the self-destructive behavior of her children and signifies her revolt against the twenty conventional and unhappy years she’s spent being married to Russ. Her actions lean toward anger and self-forgiveness rather than liberation. The family is now officially broken. Some friends are going down with it. They turn to prayer for self-therapy. The sense of worship is lacking. God is like a Hotline.
It’s quite a crew. Russ wants to correct or punish everyone else out of line except himself. Clem pretends to go back to college and then decides to take off to New Orleans. Perry breaks his vow of giving up recreational drugs and finds a dealer offering speed. Becky offers herself to an influencer so that Tanner’s band can get a contract. Laura Dobronsky is the only free-spirit hippie-like character Franzen portrays (the other hippies are shown as communal enclave types who are faceless and benign and unaddressed by the narrative). Laura D is a natural talent in the band, but after Tanner betrays her, she’s leaving the hippie house where she is staying and packing to go West to make the Haight-Ashbury scene. A big whoopdedoo ensues about whether or not the band unites for the big show. Meanwhile, Marion is fasting to get thin again, smoking and cursing now, and disses Russ openly every chance she gets. Russ is pitifully head over heels about Frances, but she is toying with him. He is blind. It is possible in a novel loaded with bible lore, someone will make him see. Frances’ motives are as yet unclear. Meanwhile young and innocent Judson (he might be really something in the later books) is locked into his Stratego board game, planning his next moves far in advance.
It’s awkward. About 40 pages of backstory interrupt the narrative train’s immediate journey into the last scenes. I waded through some of Russ’s history then skipped it, in order to get back to the drama. Pastor Russ (emerging now as the protagonist) has Frances alone as his partner, at last. The once-meek Russ develops as a character, we can assume, because he is now more assertive and devil-may-care. The indication is that Marion was a source of serious emasculation all those years, and Frances brings out his manly mojo. Do his actions seem a little too full of bravado? And isn’t he the rare, exceptional male character in novel-land who doesn’t fail and come up short when he finally makes it with the woman of his dreams? Instead, it is her who has problems: she’s too tight to let him in.
As a patient reader since all these 500 pages or so, I’m feeling a bit manipulated. There are still some pages left, but the turn from jerk to macho hero seems too much to readily accept.
The last section summarizes how family members keep their heads barely above water and find a temporary peace. Knowing there is a sequel (and then a third) influences the way I look at the ending. Setup or wrap? There are loose ends and some gaps I’d guess Franzen will enjoy going back to fill for us (e.g., Russ and Frances’s affair). I was unmoved by the reunion of Becky and her brother Clem. She is married to Tanner and they have little Gracie now. Ho hum. I am not bummed out by the fall of failed drug dealer Perry into detention centers and courtrooms. We see Russ break down again (loses his hero points). He and Marion reconcile (apparently because she gets horny) and move to deeper into middle America suburbia, once again as prayerful pastor hubby and pastor’s wife.
There is for me no wow factor at the end, no strong feeling of anything. The only scene that widened my eyes was Becky being transported in a Benz at warp-Autobahn speeds.
All told, it’s a novel that features characters and family dynamics. Capturing an era is not really the big show here. The backdrop is not sparkling in detail, even if the scenes of drug-partaking are vivid and realistic. There are references to pop songs and products of the times, automobiles and clothing etc., but Crossroads is not a depiction of the early 70s and its on-going cultural revolution with longhairs and hippies. The Hildebrandt kids are suburban-cut blanks that get tainted by the wilder and more sordid world around them. But they are not at heart peaceniks or beatniks or paradigm-changers like so many of the others. They are churchy and square. Vain and begrudging. The parents are hardly role models. They are tired of each other, punitive toward the kids, and in a no-win situation against the Rick Ambroses of the world.
Many will write of the Christianity aspects, and I have only alluded to a few. Is the religious theme a subject of satire, or a warning, or an objective presentation left for us to weigh? A bit of all, I think.
Now it’s over and the dust settles until the second book comes out. My bet is Franzen still has something more sensational up his sleeve. Like many fans, I’ll be there for the next one.