This Week's Reads

Adam Langer and David Brock.

Crossing California

By Adam Langer (Riverhead, $24.95) Usually, a coming-of-age novel exists inside the tumultuous skull of the kid in question. When the narrator burns his girlfriend's house in the passionate opening chapter of Scott Spencer's Endless Love, we get so far inside his mind that it makes perfect sense to us, even if not to the outside world. Like Spencer's Chicago novel, Adam Langer's is about screwed-up teenagers, but his focus is not on their innermost souls but on their world: Chicago, specifically the microcosm of the West Rogers Park neighborhood at the time of the Iran hostage crisis, 1979–81. His tone is worlds away from the generically typical tremulous sincerity—though he has his sober moments, he's more up the satiric emotional alley of Chuck Klosterman and Dazed and Confused. California is the boulevard that divides the social classes: "Everything west of California was pristine and white-collar and Jewish, or Indian, Italian, Filipino or Korean. . . . East of California, there was a discernible change in the light . . . and the streets seemed just a bit narrower." It's like Fran Lebowitz's observation: In a rich neighborhood, everything is better, even the weather, even if it's only a block away from the poor one. On both sides of the divide, Langer's world is superabundantly rich in description. The awe-inspiringly meticulous details of everyday life are accurate, Chicago reviewers have testified, and they ring true to Northwest experience, too. The right-wing teacher who assigns essays on "the greatest country on earth" with only one eligible country in mind might have stepped out of Tobias Wolff's memoir of Concrete, Wash., and the episode involving West Rogers Park students and a teacher unaware their brownies are full of marijuana happened in much the same way at Seattle's Shoreline High in the '70s. For those who don't remember, Langer provides a helpful glossary at the back explaining the detritus of the era—the Guess Who, Kunta Kinte, Cheryl Tiegs—and also the Yiddish terms the mostly Jewish characters spout. The characters aren't deep, but they're wonderful. Jill Wasserstrom is a driven smarty-pants with Shi'ite sympathies, her sister, Michelle, a theater-struck sexpot inclined to step out of her panties, even for a swain as unpromising as Larry Rovner. Larry is the Hebrew School valedictorian, but his erotic scholarship is restricted to index cards on which he keeps track of the girls he'd most like to lure past the sign he's posted in his basement: "Larry Rovner's Space-Age Bachelor Pad." Larry's rabbi-intensive rock band belts lyrics like, "I like your button, now it's time to press it/ Meet me in the back of the Beth Ha'knesset!" On the bright side, at least his doctor dad entitles him to live on the rich side of California. Besides, Michelle is in a panic after months of celibacy: Inspired by Ted Koppel's new nighttime show about the Iran crisis, she tells a friend, "It's Day 140 without a date!" On the poor side of town, Muley Wills, the broodingly ambitious son of a single black mom and an absentee white dad who made millions off the songs of Chicago bluesmen, including his father-in-law, puts one in mind of the less comic, more soulfully yearning denizens of Jonathan Lethem's Brooklyn-in-the-'70s novel, The Fortress of Solitude. When I read that novel, I criticized it for being too weighed down by ambition and highfalutin in its prose. I wanted something more like Crossing California. But reading Langer, I miss Lethem's sky-high seriousness, his poetical sensitivity. Both books could use more propulsive plots. What I really want is The Corrections, which combines all virtues, comic, tragic, historical- pastoral. Langer isn't in Jonathan Franzen's league, but his first novel proves he's a rookie worth his signing bonus. TIM APPELO The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy

By David Brock (Crown, $25.95) Once upon a time, David Brock was right. The only problem was he often got it wrong. As a reporter for the conservative American Spectator, he dredged up specious stories about Bill Clinton's sex life and impugned Anita Hill as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty." Then Brock switched teams and wrote a 2002 memoir/exposé, Blinded by the Right, apologizing for his ethical lapses and trashing those who'd taught him to play dirty. His latest work extends this theme while providing the next chapter in Brock's ongoing effort to gain credibility—on the left, of course. Noise Machine delivers a compelling history of how the far right has manipulated the media to shift the mainstream in its direction. The story begins with Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew attacking "elite" East Coast newsmen for devoting too much time to issues that didn't jibe with America's "silent majority." Brock argues that accusations of "liberal bias" forced the media to include more conservative voices and shifted their standard from objectivity toward "balance." During the 1970s, a close-knit group of financiers began dumping millions of dollars into think tanks that produced a stable of experts easily available to journalists in need of a voice from "the other side." Since the leaders of these think tanks have met regularly for years, they're able to push their "products" into the mainstream with impressive efficiency. As Brock tells it, a Cato or Heritage fellow publishes a supposedly neutral study, The Washington Times pimps it on its editorial page, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and the others parade it on their shows, then suddenly it's so ubiquitous that the big media feel compelled to treat it as news. In this way, Noise Machine can be seen as a companion-piece to the Outfoxed DVD. Brock spends the latter half of the book jumping from medium to medium, excoriating every right-leaning pundit or news executive who stands in his way. Although he supports his attacks with footnoted references, his reliance on secondary sources also blunts his effectiveness. Few will be surprised, for instance, that O'Reilly and Ann Coulter tend to get their facts wrong, particularly those who've read Al Franken, Eric Alterman, and Joe Conason. Meanwhile, as Brock becomes increasingly focused on individual critiques, the constant petty personal attacks and repetitive accusations begin to make him sound like a street-corner conspiracy theorist. His bloodlust also overshadows the extent to which the quest for profits, rather than ideology, corrupts news coverage—a pressure as acute at The New York Times as at the Fox News Channel. Coming in an election year when authors of both political stripes are cashing in on the red-blue political divide, Brock's Noise Machine may not make readers any more well informed, but it raises the volume on an argument that will be way past 11 this Nov. 2. WALTER C. STERN

 
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