Darkness at the Edge of Town
Jay Cantor, Great Neck (Knopf, 2003)
Like another grand dissection of American dreaming, “The Great Gatsby,” Jay Cantor’s recent novel takes place in that moneyed compound of privilege, Great Neck, Long Island (aka Fitzgerald’s “East Egg”). Unlike Fitzgerald’s titular romantic, the wealthy denizens of Cantor’s novel do not chase the orgiastic green light of the future, and instead find themselves all too willing to be borne ceaselessly into the past. Their boats are running with the current, swamped in history, fixated on the meaning and pressure of previous events. This marks a critical distinction for “Great Neck”: It doesn’t puzzle over where we may be heading, as so many other recent weighty novels have pondered, but instead restricts itself to a ruthless questioning of how we arrived at the mess surrounding us now.
It’s familiar territory for Cantor, who has probed modernity through the camouflaged lens of the famous Argentinean guerilla in “The Death of Che Guevara” and in the furry guise of antique comic strip characters in “Krazy Kat.” “Great Neck” sticks out from the author’s past work, in that it shows no sign of any tricky, postmodern narrative style. Indeed, the novel’s large cast of characters, temporal sweep, and historical scope almost seem a quaint throwback to staid Dickensian technique.
This development may well be alarming. Despite a small coterie of fans, Cantor’s work has never flown off the shelves (his other two books are out of print) and many could view “Great Neck” as his bid for marketplace success. It’s a suspicion not helped by the cover, which depicts two supine, twentysomethings chuckling in dishabille, half their bodies replaced with lurid comic book-hero-style capes and boots. What could be more transparent? Since Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” tales of unitard-clad derring-do have been as popular on the page as they have in the multiplex. On one level, “Great Neck” clearly represents Cantor’s effort to cash in on the trend.
But to dismiss the book on such grounds would be foolish. In telling the stories of six prosperous Long Island children, haunted by specters both archival and physical, “Great Neck” has a lot more than mainstream acceptance on its mind. True, the ringleader of the group, neurasthenic, precocious Billy Green, transforms the details of his friends’ lives and trials into pulpy, printed escapades, but the purple exclamations of the four-color fight scene are secondary to the plot’s wider generational concerns.
The action begins when a preadolescent Billy uncovers an account of the Holocaust in a Jewish encyclopedia, and, horrified and nauseated, presents his findings to his elementary school class. That epochal discovery of human evil sets the stage for the book’s central ethical dilemma: how to accept and atone for such monstrosities while escaping their horror and consequence. Here a pivotal difference appears between the “Great Neck” of Fitzgerald and Cantor. F. Scott saw it as an emblematic rotten paradise, whereas Cantor views it as a temple of forced isolation, rigid in a quixotic separation that ultimately proves futile to the children it tries to protect. Which version best captures the militaristic suburban enclaves populating the outskirts of today’s inner cities should be obvious.
The children’s trauma is worsened exponentially when an older brother, a civil rights activist, is murdered in Mississippi during Freedom Summer. Shortly after this tragedy, they begin to receive cryptic notes seemingly from the martyr’s hand. Billy Green, already a quick study in regard to drama, sees these notes as a charge: he and the sibling of the deceased, Laura Jaffe, the lover of the dead boy and daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Beth Jacobs, and their confidantes Arthur Kaplan, Jesse Kelman, and Jeffrey Schell, have been chosen. They must enact good in the world in order to avenge Frank Jaffe’s death and to alleviate the pain of his soul. At the time, no one notices that Billy’s eerie epiphany also conveniently releases the bunch from their former existential guilt over the Holocaust. They accept the idea of redemption at face value, and set out in the world, with a sense of entitlement dangerously doubled—not only are they rich and leftist, they have been singled out by higher powers.
Cantor uses this already heady platform as an entry into even deeper waters. Nearly every major divisive issue of the late 20th century is touched upon: Vietnam, racism, gangs, the death penalty, Israel, AIDS, sado-masochism, gay rights, and a few more. A great portion of the book is devoted to the protagonists’ adventures during the 1960s: their involvement in nonviolent protests and radical bombings, sit-ins and Black Panther shootouts. The easygoing, peace-love-and-drugs version of the decade presented by most current media is pointedly ignored. Great Neck may only casually be about superheroes, but it does very much deal with the secret identity of America.
Cantor’s treats his revolutionaries and their transformative political goals with a sympathetic hand, but he also unflinchingly observes the inevitable slide of ideals into violence. “Great Neck” is important because it brings these messy historical details to brutal, immense life, without sugarcoating the portrayal in any way. Noble motivations are not excused, humane ends do not justify homicidal means. No matter how much Cantor, or the reader, identifies with the idealism of Great Neck’s denizens, no one is left off the hook.
As Cantor’s characters age and tire, some adjust and compromise with the failure of their countercultural vision, while others stay underground in a futile effort to keep the soiled dream alive. Ultimately, they must return to the disillusioned South of the 1980s and the scene of Frank Jaffe’s murder, to discover the ambiguous truth behind the spectral letters, the directives that set them on their doomed quest. Their coming to terms with the disappointing arc of their lives mirrors the collapsed hopes of the ’60s generation, the failure of a society to break free of the shackles of exploitation and let freedom ring.
High-minded stuff to be sure, and discussion of it causes Cantor to dispense with stylistic panache. The author’s postmodern affiliations do manifest in some form, mostly in the characters’ obeisance to Freud and his chin-stroking ilk. Herbert Marcuse actually appears early on in the book, as the mentor of famous psychoanalyst Leo Jacobs, father to Beth Jacobs and survivor of the Nazi ovens. The reader without at least a passing knowledge of the history of liberal intellectualism and psychoanalytic theory may feel a bit adrift at times, particularly during the opening sections. Billy Green and his compatriots often come off less as well-rounded, purposeful individuals, and more as a collection of neurotic handicaps and seething insecurities, putting a sly spin on James Wood’s term “hysterical realism.” This, in all fairness, may result from the author’s worldview, rather than any writerly weakness.
As pure prose, “Great Neck” does overcome the difficulties presented by its characters’ shaky mental states. The novel’s true gift, one that finally transcends its ivory tower leanings, lies in the act of rendering a character’s particular mental intricacies in the narrative style itself. Consider this early passage, detailing Arthur Kaplan’s trip to his friend’s trial:
Any dark enclosed space made Arkey feel already trapped in his grave. How long, each bump said, how long, how long? This fucking tunnel ends in Pardes, Arkey dreamt, and the cab would take him to join the person he most respected, his grandfather Abraham, the shop steward, now one month in his own tomb.
Here is omniscient, third-person narration that completely wriggles inside the nervous head of the subject, but simultaneously delivers a wealth of vital background information. In just a few short moves, we know all about this fearful, morbid man, his terrified urgency and death-borne claustrophobia breathing within the diction and pacing of the sentences. And because of the totality of our immersion in Arthur Kaplan’s head, we cannot help but empathize with him.
“Great Neck” accomplishes this feat with every faulty character, with every flawed cause and compromised action. Even the truncated lives of an opportunistic gangster and a government weapons technician vibrate with a sympathetic reverb—we feel sad, and faintly responsible, when they meet their separate fates. In a larger sense, “Great Neck” captures the whole restless sweep of civic life and emotional politics, of rebellion and collaboration, of history, and turns it into something in which we must all feel complicit. If “Great Neck” has anything else besides setting in common with “The Great Gatsby,” it is a demand that we acknowledge our collective status in the “dark rolling hills of the republic,” and that we face up to our country’s passions, crimes, and aspirations. And as both works imply, the process will not exactly have a happy ending.