From Great Neck, With Attitude-An American Jewish Blossoming

Great Neck , by Jay Cantor. Alfred A. Knopf, 703 pages, $27.95.

Every author has an obligation to the reader’s right hand. The left hand already belongs to him: It’s holding all the pages that have been turned so far. The right hand, though, is sending electronic pulses back to the reader’s fickle brain, precise data on the weight and scale and degree of interest contained in the pages yet to go-and so this hand needs constantly to be comforted and charmed, lulled into forgetfulness about the long journey ahead.

This physics works for thrillers and romances, which are built for speed. However, if you’re planning on any lyricism at all-or (almost worse) if, like Jay Cantor, you’re an author burdened with a point to make, or a few dozen very pointy points to make-every page has to be good, and many have to be considerably more than good. This is the 21st century, after all, an age so saturated in narcissism you might call it post-narcissistic. We don’t need books anymore: We can be online-dating; we can be mashing between our happy molars slivers of tart ginger, slow-burning wasabi and raw tuna like some red cream of the sea while we catalog recent purchases with our good-looking friends; we have 231 channels on the basic plan. No aspect of our lives ever, ever requires us to think. Please us, author, or the right hand shall dispense with your work and return to its, um, usual duties.

Great Neck holds the right hand firmly in place. It’s Jay Cantor’s third novel in 20 years. The first two were considered brilliant, perhaps even to the point of eggheady. The Death of Che Guevara , which he published in 1983, when he was in his early 30′s, is a formally, politically and psychologically audacious re-imagining of the life of a political legend-a man, for most of us, more poster than flesh. Next came Krazy Kat: A Novel in Five Panels , published in 1987, similarly pomo, depicting the famous cartoon character ultimately turning human and working out the psycho-sexual problems of life in the atomic age. Each book marries a libidinal fantasy (Che, Krazy Kat) to the absurd political and social realities of the second half of the 20th century.

The new novel does the same. At 700-plus pages and with a dozen or more strong characters, the story is set first in Great Neck on Long Island’s expensive north shore in the late 1950′s and early 1960′s, when its ensemble cast is growing up together, later moving to Mississippi, Cambridge, Mass., and New York City, among other places. Jumping with astonishing deftness back and forth in time and among their many lives, it attempts-and succeeds-in presenting their full psychological, political, spiritual and erotic development as human beings in the context of the history that put them in that place at that time. It’s an amazing achievement and hugely entertaining, even when it sometimes softens and sags under its very large weight.

One of the leading characters is Arkey-Arthur Kaplan. About him it’s important to know that, like his creator (whose full name is Alfred Jay Cantor), he’s a Ph.D., a university man and an intellectual of the left, and he’s writing a book, with various tentative titles, notably Jews with Money , which might well have been the title of the novel containing it. He’s an ever more religious Jew baffled by his love for a shiksa. This is a theme for Mr. Cantor, and in fact Arkey’s shiksa, Kate, has the same name as the woman that Krazy Kat becomes when she turns magically human.

Other characters (they’re all compelling, all painted with minute and careful strokes and subtle colors) include Billy Green, nebbish and comic-book genius whose multi-decade graphic chronicle of a group of leftist superheroes oppressed by the evil forces of government draws distinctly on each of the book’s main characters, making them all, in certain circles, uselessly famous. There are two beautiful women, the left-wing Betty-and-Veronica of this world: Laura, whose brother is murdered by the Klan in the civil-rights struggles in Mississippi, and Beth, a member of the Weathermen who is present on the famous day when that townhouse blows up in Greenwich Village. Beth is thereafter on the run, though on the day in 1978 when the novel begins, she’s having her bail hearing after finally turning herself in. She won’t stay locked up for long.

Jay Cantor grew up in Great Neck and, it happens, so did I. A formative fact about Great Neck, if you grow up there and are infected with the writer’s virus: F. Scott Fitzgerald lived there, back when it was a movie mogul’s town, and The Great Gatsby is set there. This novel, inescapably because of its name and locale, must be compared to Gatsby : It reveals the same edge of modern self-destruction that comes with a psychic break with the past and a re-creation of self in the form of new money.

There was a gourmet shop in town called Kuck’s when I was growing up. (It makes a brief appearance early in the novel.) “Rare and exotic foods,” the awning boasted; my mother once remarked that it ought be changed to “rare and exotic treatment of customers.” Herr Kuck, round, pink and vile, ran the place like a stalag, screaming anti-Semitic insults at customers who irritated him with questions, which they all nevertheless, with a certain droll self-abasement, persisted in doing at top volume. That the citizens drove Mercedes (avidly) and patronized this guy (just as avidly) demonstrated certain paradoxes that served as a solid introduction to the deeper mysteries of American Jewish life. Only time has now erased what even the Holocaust couldn’t, which was the deep desire of those Jews with education and Central European heritage to become, still, upper-middle-class Germans. Mr. Cantor captures this culture and these distinct lives with astonishing affection and detail, with imaginative humor and a nuanced intellectual mastery: He’s one of those rare writers who can show credible lives infused with actual ideas.

Several survivors of the camps populate the story, most notably Beth’s father, a famous psychiatrist named Jacobs. Just as Beth’s devolution to criminality in “the struggle” holds the structure of the story together (her bail hearing, her escape, her next set of activities), so her father’s experience and work stand as the book’s philosophical center. His evolving but ultimately implacable residence inside that 20th-century nightmare is one of Mr. Cantor’s supreme fictional achievements. Despite all the adventures of the novel’s younger generation in the civil rights and antiwar protests of the 60′s and later, the Holocaust is the Political Fact of this story, as it was for those generations of American Jews. It drives the parents’ desperate, sad quest for security and the equally desperate attempts of their offspring, as they grow up, to make good a ruined, racist world. As the Cold War is for Don DeLillo, so the Holocaust is (that plus more, of course) for Mr. Cantor, and in Great Neck , with its historical sweep and it’s deep American-ness, he’s given us what you might call Underworld for the Jews.

There’s a meta-within-meta quality to the novel (to all Jay Cantor’s novels), if such a thing is possible, most notable in the outlines of Billy Green’s comic-book version of the characters’ lives and Arkey’s never-ending social history. Like Great Neck itself, Billy and Arkey glorify the moment of American Jewish blossoming that so suffused that town in the 50′s, 60′s and 70′s. It’s a knowing bit of self-mockery, too, that the politics of the era can be rendered as the stuff of comic books-an admission by Mr. Cantor that his characters’ politics, whether in Mississippi, Washington or Israel, are symbolic as much as heartfelt. This purposeful sentimentality is tied somehow to the idea that Great Neck was a sublime and beautiful place back then, when in fact it wasn’t; it was the nastiest place imaginable, a breeding ground for the angry rich, the rich-without-manners-which is to say, in every important sense, the worst of both worlds, since manners are the only worthwhile feature of the rich.

But this is a quibble, and a parochial one. The town Mr. Cantor has created, home to his crew of bent and tormented heroes, though gentler and nicer than the one I remember, is nevertheless a real and unforgettable place: Mr. Cantor’s language, wit, historical intelligence, technical skill and far-reaching literary philosophy have made it so.

Vince Passaro is the author of Violence, Nudity, Adult Content: A Novel