Picks and Pans Review: Crossing California

updated 06/07/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/07/2004 01:00AM

By Adam Langer

CRITIC'S CHOICE

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There isn't much plot in this slice-of-life study, but what a heaping slice it is. Langer drills to the core of people—five gifted teens and their clueless elders in 1979-81 Chicago—as deeply as Jonathan Franzen did in The Corrections, and like Franzen, Langer is going to need a trophy case.

Langer deploys a photographic memory and deadpan wit as he juggles the bat mitzvahs, feuds and hookups of 10 major characters from either side of the class boundary of California Avenue during the Iran hostage crisis. He begins and ends with the halting romance of two awkward geniuses: Jill Wasserstrom, who lost her mom to cancer and takes refuge in extremist politics, and Muley Wills, a poor African-American kid who declares his love for Jill by making films. But it's Jill's sister, budding actress Michelle, who steals the show, ruling scene after hilarious scene (for a stretch she pretends to be a Russian defector named Peachy Moskowitz) with her acid tongue. Like the author, she will dazzle you with her smarts.

NOVEL

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