In 1960, a group of friends are plucked from their sixth grade classroom in privileged Great Neck, Long Island and confronted for the first time with the horrors of the Holocaust. They hear a challenge from the past, a cry from history to set the world on a better course; but it is the murder of a much-loved older brother during Mississippi’s Freedom Summer that makes their mission clear.
From the front line of the civil rights movement to Andy Warhol’s New York art scene, from comic book superheroes to the violent maelstrom of the Weather Underground, Great Neck immerses us in a charged time not so long ago, and illuminates the lives of those who were shaped by its energies and ideals. Vigorous, funny, profound and altogether gripping, it is a masterpiece of contemporary literature.
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On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, Arthur Kaplan-nicknamed Arkey by his brother-in-law and transformed to OurKey in the BillyBooks series Tales from the Kabbalah-bounced nervously in a taxi, bumping along on an Israeli jockey's Island City route to the courtroom. Asleep or awake, in long reveries and fleeting images, Arkey Kaplan was given to dreaming, mixtures of memory and longing that transformed and commanded him. Today, a sentient corpse ordered him to pat his jacket pocket to make sure he had his checkbook-in case he needed to pay his childhood friend Beth Jacobs bail for not showing up for trial in Chicago nearly a decade before. Or for setting bombs throughout this great land of ours. Or for God knows what else.
Can you actually pay bail with a personal check? Distracted, Arkey forgot to tell the cab driver to take the bridge. Too late. The Israeli jockey had thrust them into the line for the Holland Tunnel-that insecure Dutch dike against the river, that clammy, oppressive place, that long, tight ceramic tomb.
Ghouls and coffins were much on Arkey's mind. Perhaps they always had been, but a year and a day ago, Arkey had had his second operation for skin cancer at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. "Happy Birthday," his surgeon had said as Arkey lay nauseous in the recovery room, dreaming of the time he'd opened a mojo hand's rolled scroll and so put a curse on himself. "The margins were very good," the doctor had said. "We got it all." His savior had looked down at his chart then and had added, mildly, "Probably."
Arkey wore his long-sleeved shirt buttoned to the top so the sun couldn't tickle his weak-willed skin. He had a white scarf around his neck and a Panama on his head, and he even kept his hands in his pockets. Moisture bloomed under his arms, formed a fragrant acid-and-roses river with the Guerlain cologne he wore to mask his continual sweating. How had Billy Green managed to predict that in his comic books?
And how much longer would this damn tunnel go on for? 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 had most respected, his grandfather Abraham, the shop steward, now one month in his own tomb. The word reminded him of the Tombs, where Beth waited, just as Granddad had predicted, Avraham having found strength to denounce her, among others, before he died, this allrightnick's Eleventh-and scrupulously observed-Commandment being Thou shalt criticize others. "She was never part of the world she supposedly wanted to save, Arthur. She acted without guidance from any class organization. No discipline. No solidarity."
"They had solidarity, Granddad. With the Third World."
"Baloney!" Abe's once strong voice was now a harsh whisper. "A fantasy," he gasped-magisterially. His finger, skinny but for the swollen knuckles, tapped a temple. "She and her pals really served their own meshuginah psychologies. That's it!"
Thank God, Arkey had thought, I've always remained faithful to long dead socialist organizations-for avoiding Abe's poking finger had been, since childhood, Arthur Kaplan's Eleventh Commandment. And Abe's approval? That miracle was reserved for the great-the greatly moral, observers of the mitzvahs, heroes of labor. I.e., not Arkey, who was merely a historian of the movement, not a participant.
His grandfather had coughed, the ratchets of his lungs grinding on each other. A claw reached toward the night table for Kleenex, scattering bottles, letters, flowers, capless ballpoints. Arkey had knelt to pick things up, bobbed up and down by the bedside, trying to arrange things by category, with the long black box of the nurse's call button in front.
"Thank you," Avraham said. "You are a pillar for me, Arkey."
Well, Arkey tidied, Arkey loved, but on the whole Avraham didn't make much distinction between Beth Jacobs, for example, and the rest of Arkey's generation, including the grandson himself. "It was never a revolutionary situation in this country," Avraham had said, that visit. "She was putting on a show for herself and her friends with those bombings. America is a stage set for her psychodrama. The audience stops watching, boychick, she'll get bored and surrender."
Apparently true. Anyway, according to Jesse Kelman, at least Arkey and his friends had nothing to worry about from Beth's trial. The State, he said, didn't know anything more than before about the MIT bombing-or anyway, it couldn't prove anything-so long as Michael Healy didn't talk. And as for what Beth might have done after that, well, whatever it had been, other parts of the Weather Underground-known as the Eggplant, at least in their own frenetic, whimsical imaginations-had gotten wrist slaps when they'd surfaced: suspended sentences, probation, tiny morsels of county time. Mark Rudd had-in Eggplant patois-inverted a year before Beth. He'd gotten off with a two-thousand-dollar fine and some probation time. Only Cathy Wilkerson, Jesse said, might get more-her parents had owned the town house, which put her in legal possession of the dynamite. But all the government could hang on Beth Jacobs was being there. Or so Jesse Kelman had said. And, as always, his friends had rested themselves in Jesse's quiet certainties, his You're home now, I'll take care of you tone. Thus his nom de BillyBooks: The Defender, with its overtones, rare for Billy's work, of Campbell's Soup and Mom.
Special Agent Olson, still especially piqued with Beth, had managed to delay her bail hearing a week with jive about a vast international terrorist network still crouching in the American night. But even Olson couldn't jerk off to that fantasy for long. Beth's hearing this morning, Jesse said, would be brief and pro forma. She would probably walk out with them this afternoon, bored with setting bombs, ready for a new life; the final bow of the Weathermen-with most of the audience already at their summerhouses.
But when a brusque guard stopped Arkey in the courthouse lobby and passed a metal detector's curved rods over the legs of his seersucker suit and into his sweaty crotch, Arkey knew there'd been a glitch. Jesse had got it wrong. Maybe Beth had been heedless again, suffering from a masochistic desire for a restrictive, punishing authority (her psychoanalyst father's theory) or just from an upper-middle-class certainty that the world would once again conform to her fantasies.
A Hispanic TAC Squad officer holding a rifle with a curved clip stood next to the guard. He glared at Arkey as he walked past him into the courtroom, probably able to tell from Arkey's long nose that he was a friend of the guard's hated enemy, the defendant, the notorious comic book star Beth Jacobs, i.e., Athena X, or Ninja B., or (in the Justice series) Deborah, AKA the Prophet. The guard muttered something. A curse?
Arkey loosened his scarf as he walked to the front of the court and took a seat next to his friend Jeffrey Schell. The guard, Arkey knew, wanted him to die. He needed wood to knock on, to stop new tumor cells from sprouting. This must be the throne room of Zargon, or of the devil himself! Only concrete everywhere! Arkey tapped his own head lightly, clearly wood through and through, Avraham often said. Arkey knew superstitions meant religion had failed him; or he'd failed it, Arkey fitfully observant only for the last six months and lacking the hefty Abe-style moral greatness that might provoke God's protection. Besides, old habits die hard; probably after the person, even. Had he been this bad, he wondered, before the melanoma?
"Yeah," Laura had said, last time he dragged this subject up. He'd always been a wood knocker, she said, a crack skipper. A penny swallower. Laura usually wore stylish versions of peasant things, thickly textured, many different-colored threads-but both a little more intricate and more muted, this peasant's patron Saint being Laurent. In fact, Laura, in consultation with her dressmaker, designed her own knockoffs, gathered her fabrics for her kimonos moderne, her très riche Irish milkmaid cloaks, Laura a multiethnic tribe unto herself. That day for an amiable lunch-croque mesdames in the faded Bauhaus of the Brasserie-she'd worn a straight, long tweed skirt, a woven forest-garden.
"Wood knocking," Arkey had said, "that's ordinary kid stuff, you ask me." He'd hoped still that Laura might make love again even if only for old times' sake; pity even. Touching someone pushed death away-for a moment anyway.
"Arkey, darling," Laura said, with a mock shake of her head, "you have to spin around every time someone mentions sausage. You have to tie your hair in knots and rip the knots out at one in the afternoon and one at night. We won't even talk about the dropped-coin thing, or that you can't even listen to 'Take Me to the River' because someone you knew who died once listened to it, all right? None of that is ordinary, dear. You're more like a tribe of your own."
Him, too? "You know, I think it was Billy's sixth-grade school report that traumatized me. I had to come up with magic spells to keep the Nazis away from Great Neck."
Laura had laughed at that explanation. Insufficiently Oedipal, probably. "Well, thanks for your effort. It seems to have worked."
"Yeah. So far." He took another forkful of fried bread and cheese. Join the Jews for a Larger Tribe and Better Spells? Not that theirs had worked so very well against Germans. Or even Babylonians, for that matter.
Then, just as he was imagining Laura's bow-shaped lips, his dream became reality and Laura Jaffe-AKA SheWolf, and Dr. Fantasy in BillyBooks-walked into the crowded courtroom, in a short black skirt-more professional today than haute couture peasant-a short-sleeved, white scalloped shirt and small pearls, and a cane topped with a silver wolf. The lawyers, as if on cue, started to gabble at each other in excited voices. The whole thing, Arkey thought, must have sounded to Laura like a murderous argument at her family's dinner table. After all, Robert Brown, the government's lawyer, was the handsome nephew of her family's maid, and the defense counsel was played today by Jesse Kelman, her first lover-and still, Arkey suspected bitterly, the champeen.
Laura glanced at Arkey-the not-quite-father of the child she hadn't had-and she smiled almost warmly at him (or was it at her best friend, Jeffrey Schell?)-but the seat she decided on was across the aisle from them. A snub. Arkey couldn't help himself; he tucked his leg under his bottom so he'd look taller.
Laura, as if responding, put her right hand under her long black hair and lifted it over her blouse collar, a gesture that seemed to Arkey, like everything she did since they'd split up two years ago, both enticing and dismissive.
Though what Laura actually felt that morning was anxious-like she'd suddenly become the one on trial here. She liked being looked at, loved being wanted, but she didn't cotton to being divided, used up, found wanting, and she sat now in a courtroom with Jesse Kelman, a handsome boy who, in girl-times, she'd deeply loved; Arkey Kaplan, a lover in penny loafers who'd always wanted too much from her; and Bobby Brown, a man with whom she'd already, in fantasy, started to make love. So she touched her hair to reassure herself, anxiety being most certainly not good for her under-siege myelin. How important could this case be-she said to herself to mock her own desire-if the Justice Department has sent a twenty-eight-year-old lawyer to try it?
Still, she couldn't take her eyes off Robert Brown, who, with an expertly controlled lawyer's death-voice that without inordinate volume could push you into the corner of a room and beat your brain black and blue, now said that Laura's dear friend Beth Jacobs had, to the government's certain knowledge, participated in several bombings over the last ten years. The government would show that during the course of these conspiracies the defendant had seriously wounded at least one man. And those were just the felonies the government could be certain about. The government soon would present evidence of other, even more destructive, crimes and conspiracies, some of them just at the point of explosion. The defendant had jumped bail before, he said, and would undoubtedly flee again when she realized how desperate her situation really was, coldly indifferent as always to the effects of her actions on her community and her family. Robert Brown nodded his head toward Beth's parents, and the strength in Brown's muscular body, his numen of banked power and anger, or so Laura dreamt him, gave the downward tilt of his large head an expressive force, as if this strong man was simply overcome with righteous sympathy for these wronged old people, whose dearest wish, he knew, was that their cruel daughter should be denied bail. Laura couldn't help herself, she became a little wet for square-jawed Bobby Brown, could feel his arms pulling her toward his chest. (Too square, too large? What would children of his look like?)
Then Harrison Baker, the other of Beth's lawyers, smiled, showing wolfishly long, Chesterfield-patinaed teeth, and whispered a question in Jesse's ear. Arkey felt confident his friend could pass the Talmud's test for a lawyer's ability to try a capital case: that he could elaborate sixteen reasons why it was all right to eat snake, even though Leviticus expressly forbade it.
Jesse rose in an ill-fitting gray suit and shook his curly black-haired head with sad surprise at Bobby Brown's "unreasonable cruelty." In slow, soft tones that made him sound like a weary father correcting an obtuse, obstinate child, Jesse said that the State's claims were a government fantasy to clear the books at this poor woman's expense, for if the State had evidence of supposed conspiracies why had no other Weathermen ever been charged in them? Beth had surrendered voluntarily, and this huge, nonsensical show of force-metal detectors, pat searches, police riflemen inside the courtroom-was the State's unconscionable attempt at intimidation, its way of substituting innuendo for argument, trying to convince the judge that Beth was a dangerous character, when, in truth, she never had been a violent threat to anyone and her parents' dearest wish was only that she be returned to them and to Great Neck, Long Island, the town where she was born and still had deep roots. Surely the court could give some consideration to how much this family had already suffered?
Was Beth a threat? Laura wondered. Beth had spent two weeks hiding out in Laura's studio apartment, while Jesse negotiated her surrender. She'd been meek, bewildered, and obviously bored. Does a terrorist spend her afternoons watching Family Feud? Nights, they'd eaten takeout Kung Pao Chicken together, and Beth had never once mentioned the violent overthrow of the government. The only secret communiqués she'd received had been love notes from her boyfriend, Snake, scrawled on torn magazine pages.
From the Hardcover edition.
A Conversation with Jay Cantor author of Great Neck
Q: How did you decide to write about this time period in US history?
A: It was the most interesting, most exciting period I've lived through. Not necessarily the noblest or the most fun—though it was, indeed, good to be young. In the Sixties, it seemed like everything might change, how we lived, what our popular (or counter) culture would be, how the races got along with each other, what romance—or, okay, sex—would be like, whether we could (with the right drugs) see God and find out what He wants from us. You name it. It was a giddy and terrifying time. I felt it would be careless of me to be given something like that and not use it in fiction.
Q: Why did you choose a group of young people from Great Neck, Long Island? Does it have a personal relevance for you in any particular way?
A: I grew up in Great Neck, which seemed to me, and most of the Jews who lived there, a very heaven. From shtetl to suburbia—and such a suburb! Great Neck had, still has I think, a reputation for being filled with privileged princes and princesses, for a vulgarity too, though that looked to me mostly like high spirits. People's attitudes towards the place are mostly unfair, envious and stereotyped. Everyone knows, for example, that it's the most protected place in the world. And it is. But that doesn't mean it's safe. The parents of my generation of kids were all ready to sew their jewelry into their clothes in case they had to flee. Which was wrong. But the winds of history blew through the place anyway. The fearsof the parents, for example, made the kids dream about how the world had to change if the Holocaust were never to happen again.
And Great Neck has always been a place for dreams. It was West Egg for Gatsby, where he dreamed of Daisy and how he could change himself, and all he might be. And for the Jews, that followed it was the place of the American Dream, too. Dreams, though, like in Gatsby, always take a lot of odd turns—especially when it became for some of the kids a dream of making justice, of being important (and, yes, self-important) in history. Starting from Great Neck was also a way for me to write about Reform Judaism, the dream of which was to live in the modern world, in history, by the light of the prophets. Which leads to the dream of making justice again, and all its self-deception and sublimity.
The novel Great Neck only begins in the suburb, though. The dream of making justice (and yes, of being important) takes the characters to Mississippi and Cambridge, Massachusetts; to death row—one of them as a lawyer, and one of them as a prisoner.; to the anti-war movement; to Soho and the art world's attempt at transcendence. The book takes in a lot of ground and a huge number of characters, gay and straight, men and women.
And black and white. I found that you can't tell the story of the dreams of the Sixties without including what happened to black America. African-Americans provided the deepest impetus for a lot of things then—and now—and I think if left out, you tell less than half the story (and yes, I think most books about America only tell half the American story). When it comes to the Sixties, the civil rights movement, for example, was a second founding for America, an example of heroism and community that's difficult for my characters, or for my country, to live up to. My characters, for example, think they're getting letters from one of the saints of the civil rights movement—after he's dead, though, written from the grave. And maybe they are. They have the idea that the only way to ease his pain in the grave is to do what he would have done, to make justice whatever the cost. History—good and ill, tawdry and heroic—it's mostly made by people following some seemingly insane dream. And I suppose the quest never turns out the way people think it will, which I hope makes for a surprising and interesting story.
Q: In your position teaching at Tufts University, you are in constant interaction with students the same age as your characters in Great Neck. Did this influence your work in any way? Do you find the younger generation today in the US drastically different than those in the 60's? How do they differ? How are they similar?
A: As a teacher you mostly see the students who choose to take classes with you, so I only see one subset of what's going on. The students I see are as idealistic and confused and experimental as you'd wish. But the world around them is different. The adults aren't as searching perhaps. But it's important to remember that all of that is changing again now, as I write this. As I guess it always is.
Q: How would you describe your writing style?
A: I don't think I can. For one thing, I like books that have a lot of different styles in them, a lot of ways of telling their story. Great Neck includes comic books, for example. (One of the characters is a great comic book artist, and the style in which he tells the stories of his friends lives weighs on them, makes them think that perhaps they should be super heroes.) I guess I like stories best where you can get into the character from a lot of different angles. I also like it when there are lots of details of their world and I can sink into their story, just live there for a while.
As for my sentences, I like them to take in different realms, and, if possible, to be very good humored. Funny, that is.
Q: Great Neck is a lengthy work of fiction. How long was the process of writing this novel for you?
A: Thirteen or so years of very hard, very concentrated work. I wasn't wasting my time. Well, I may have been, of course. But I mean I was working all that time. Really.
Q: Who are your literary influences?
A: Too many. The great modernist writers, for sure. Like them, I focus on how people think, the way they dream and how those dreams form them. But I try to bring some of the modernist tricks, their attention to how the story is told, into a more straight-ahead story—one with anti-war demos, bombings, bank robberies and murder trials.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
an amazing read with elabreate detail, great for anyone who is in for a lot of twists and turns and some wayward branches of plot...
I recently saw a piece in 'This is London' that spoke of book reviewers¿ tendency to skim, or not even read, the books which they're reviewing. I fear this is what happened with some of the less sterling reviews above. Great Neck is layered, nuanced, and even, heaven forbid, long. It¿s also one of the most amazing and insightful books I¿ve ever read. The characters are detailed and consistent, the canvas wide (the 1960s and beyond), and Cantor¿s way of moving about time and setting leaves one both satisfied and craving more. Long? More like not long enough. Five stars.