Complex Novel About AComplex American Era
Associated Press Writer
Jay Cantor’s "Great Neck" (Knopf, 703 pages, $27.95) is a novel immense in size, scope and ambition.
Ostensibly about a group of friends growing up during the turbulent 1960s in the affluent Long Island, New York, community of Great Neck, the book is also a rumination on memories and how they can shape and define the actions of people, even those to whom the memories don’t belong.
For it is the memory of the horror of the Holo-caust that in-forms many of the decisions made by this story’s characters, only a few of whom lived through the period.
The fact of the Holocaust first enters the consciousness of the group from Great Neck when their sixth-grade classmate Billy does a frighteningly factual class report about it. The report satisfies neither their thirst for more knowledge about the Holocaust nor Billy’s need to inform others about it, so Billy is soon folded into the group to educate them.
Billy, whose father is a famous cartoonist, soon learns to deal with his feelings by channeling them into fictionalized cartoon adventures of his friends, adventures that bring him acclaim and bring some of his friends a measure of fame. But the group’s lives are further complicated in ensuing years when Frank, older brother of one member, Laura, and boyfriend of another, Beth, joins the civil rights movement and is killed in Mississippi.
From there the novel branches out into a dense collection of subplots and side characters — some compelling, some not — while sometimes losing sight of where it’s going. However, the best of these — an investigation into letters from Frank, seemingly from beyond the grave; Beth’s involvement with radicals plotting against the government; and the slow disillusionment of many followers of the Black Power movement — are gripping enough to move the book forward.
Particularly effective is the story line about Sugar Cane, a leader in the civil rights movement who becomes increasingly militant until his love of power and cocaine eventually overwhelms him.
"What a world, where the best thing you can do is let yourself be killed!" one character muses about Sugar Cane. "But that had been the world Sugar had made for himself — with some white people’s help, naturally."
Other subplots, such as one character’s experimentation with sadomasochism, seem to be more about shock value than real characterization.
Jumping back and forth in time and from one character to another makes "Great Neck" a somewhat difficult novel to summarize simply. It is a complex novel about a complex and momentous period in this country’s history and the effects it had on one group of friends.