Arts » Books

The 60s and All That

Cantor's big novel takes on, well, everything

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Thirteen years in the making, Great Neck, Jay Cantor's epic look at growing up in a New Jersey suburb during the turbulent 60s and 70s, doesn't lack for chutzpah, scope, grand themes or gross tonnage, as its 700-plus pages attest.The novel weaves the daily dramas of six friends and a host of other characters into an elaborate narrative quilt encompassing all manner of subjects: the Holocaust, guilt, first love, Civil Rights, murder, comic books, drugs, Andy Warhol's art, the philosophy of Herbert Marcuse, psychiatry, mysticism . . .all of them, and more, blended into a literary concoction of history, fantasy, comedy and social reality.

There are, in fact, so many central characters, ideas and subplots it's easy to lose one's way in the labyrinthine story-telling. One reason is Cantor's use of familiar historical events as mere background; description of these events is minimal, a short-hand that allows the author to spend much more time examining the inner lives of his characters.

Whether this is a good thing or not depends on your tolerance for the musings of idealistic adolescents and 20-somethings. The answer will most likely determine whether you enjoy Great Neck or wish it were several shorter novels. Or maybe just one really short one.

The main plot, or linchpin event, revolves around Billy Green, an ultra-sensitive youngster whose oral report on the Holocaust leads to a nervous breakdown, psychiatric sessions with (conveniently) the eminent Dr. Leo Jacobs, an Auschwitz survivor, and an ESP-like awareness that enables him to forecast certain events in the lives of his friends.

Billy's father made millions in comic books, so it's no surprise that his son has a penchant for creating his own. With his newfound extra-sensory awareness, Billy needs to channel his angst somewhere, which leads, in turn, to the fictionalization of his friends' lives into a series of comic book adventures. Billy -- and Cantor -- use these with increasing frequency to describe the crises inherent in this era for the Great Neck crowd who, as Superheroes "The Defender," "The Prophet," "The Sophist," and "The Suburban Wonder Rabbi," overcome all manner of foes. For better or worse, by the end of the novel the action has shifted to the comic book counterparts for a good part of the narrative.

Key among the novel's dramas is the all-too-real (and familiar) saga of Frank, who is drawn into the early Civil Rights movement and, along with two black Freedom Riders, killed by Mississippi lawmen. When Billy sees a vision of Frank and the others murdered and buried "under tons of earth," and a series of mysterious letters from Frank then begins arriving, Billy is convinced they must honor their fallen friend and now "keep Frank in our hearts and do acts of justice."

Billy's comics serve the purpose of both illustrating his friends' commitment to Frank's memory and mirroring their fantastical, super-human efforts to stop racism, the war in Vietnam, and all the other injustices that came to light in the 60s. To that end, and with varying degrees of commitment and participation, the Great Neck crew gets involved with the anti-war movement.

But by the late 70s and early 80s, when the novel ends, most of the group have, like the majority of 60s "radicals," settled into more traditional American lifestyles and careers and abandoned their revolutionary zeal. The one exception is Beth, Frank's old girlfriend. Her trauma and grief were great enough to drive her deep underground, where she got involved with the ultra-radical group the Weathermen and eventually masterminded a string of bombings across the country. Beth is on trial for her life after a robbery goes wrong and a security guard is killed.

Unlike her old counterparts in Great Neck, Beth hasn't abandoned her fundamental beliefs, and despite a spasm of guilt "like a sticky syrup," orchestrates one last spasm of radicalism before the novel ends.

Cantor obviously feels that the core issues of the 60s reverberate today. As the protagonists struggle with their consciences and methods of coping with the injustices they see, they reflect the reactions -- horror, guilt, anger, revolutionary ardor -- of a sizable cross-section of Americans. And by mirroring their actions in their Superhero counterparts, Cantor creates an homage to the contributions these children of the 60s made to our world.

Whether you think Cantor's novel is as worthy a contribution is another question. But you can't condemn his sincerity. Or his commitment.

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