If you lived through the winter of 1971-1972 but have gotten hazy on the details over the past 50 years, or if you were born decades later and just want to do some time travel, Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant new novel, “Crossroads,” is the book for you.
Soulful, funny, and so sharply observed it hurts, it’s a portrait of a family coming apart on multiple fronts as they live through an era when all the rules — social, moral, sexual, political — seem to be in flux. It’s the first installment in a planned trilogy, “A Key to All Mythologies,” that, in the words of Franzen’s publisher, “will span three generations and trace the inner life of our culture through the present day.” “Crossroads” gets this wildly ambitious project off to a glorious start.
Set in the fictional Chicago suburb of New Prospect in 1971, it takes its name from a touchy-feely Christian youth group at First Reformed, a Protestant church where family man Russ Hildebrandt is an associate pastor. As the novel opens, Russ is estranged from Crossroads, following an unspecified “humiliation” three years earlier at the hands of his Crossroads co-leader, Rick Ambrose, who greatly increased the youth group’s popularity.
Russ is so entrenched in viewing Ambrose as his nemesis that he can hardly think straight. One of his parishioners, the recently widowed Frances Cottrell, has also turned his head for opposite reasons. He’s doing his best to trigger some intimacy with her by roping her into joining him in his charity work for a Chicago inner-city neighborhood church.
Russ, in his clumsy way, acknowledges that it’s “bad” to lust after a woman who isn’t his wife — and he also knows that he’s “bad at being bad.” Convolutedly self-involved, he perversely embraces his “daily shame” as a way to connect with “the sufferings of Christ.” The efforts of his wife, Marion, to calm his insecurities and resentments, however, are “a torment without spiritual upside.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Russ’s wife and four children — though they may not know the details of his infatuation — are losing patience with this deeply flawed do-gooder.
Franzen, repeatedly shifting point-of-view, introduces us to the kids first: precocious 15-year-old Perry, newly determined to stop selling pot to his friends; popular high-school senior Becky, whose life has just been changed by an unexpected kiss; and college freshman Clem, whose academic efforts have been undermined by his belated discovery of sex. (The inner life of 9-year-old Judson, the most loved and perhaps sanest member of the family, isn’t portrayed in detail by Franzen — but he’s a vivid and endearing presence throughout the book.)
The real center of the novel, though, is 50-year-old Marion, an unhappily overweight associate pastor’s wife who sees her husband’s shortcomings with weary clarity. Russ views her as an undesirable near-nonentity — and has no idea how little he knows about her. Much about her past might shock him and her children too. Her wayward yet pious turn of mind will likely catch readers off-guard as well.
With the Hildebrandt family members in place, “Crossroads” becomes a variety pack of secret aspirations and betrayals. All the Hildebrandts, barring young Judson, have a double-edged sense of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Altruism, for one, may just be a type of manipulation. Empathy, for another, may be a sly means of seduction. Honesty may be a way to inflict wounds. Repentance, reform, and bargains with God may have self-serving transactional motives behind them.
There’s nothing reductive in Franzen’s portrait of this agitated, complicated family, and “Crossroads” is both agonizing and hilarious as it probes each character’s dilemma. There’s nothing amiss, either, in Franzen’s period detail. The American wind-down in Vietnam; the awkward tension between Black and white people in the early post-Civil Rights era; certain grown-ups’ sense that they were born too early to benefit from the various types of liberation fermenting around them — all are wistfully, wryly noted. Franzen is droll, too, on the soundtrack accompanying this era. (One folk trio is described as “rousingly singing of what they would do with a hammer at various times of day.”)
“Crossroads” is so richly entertaining that the ethical inquiries Franzen poses go down like cherry-flavored medicine. But they’re rigorous all the same.
Marion has the darkest point of view. After beating up on herself for her past misdeeds, she informs her psychiatrist, “It’s not just me, by the way. … I think everyone is bad. I think badness is the fundamental condition of humanity.”
An inebriated Perry, in a hilarious scene at an all-faiths holiday party, corners a Lutheran minister and a rabbi who are thrilled to have a 15-year-old challenging them on “whether goodness can ever truly be its own reward, or whether, consciously or not, it always serves some personal instrumentality.”
More than one family member, embracing a logic so circular it’s dizzying, ascribes their hurts and disappointments to the ultimately benevolent will of a cunning God. Clem, as the lone “nonbeliever among believers,” turns to a moral absolutism of his own that’s as rigid as any church teaching. If anyone genuinely holds the high ground in these struggles, it’s Russ’s enemy Rick Ambrose, who is candor itself about his malaise at the success Crossroads has enjoyed under his tenure.
Late in the book, a minor character states what might be Franzen’s thesis: “Nothing is more important than family.” “Crossroads” copiously illustrates this — albeit with a for-better-or-worse caveat implied throughout its pages.
Though set primarily in New Prospect, the novel also touches down in California, Peru, and, most importantly, the Navajo Nation where a church-volunteer mission, awkwardly led by both Russ and Rick Ambrose, takes some gnarly turns. Franzen’s prose, as always, is sheer pleasure.
By the final pages, power among the Hildebrandts has shifted, roles have been reversed, and relationships drastically realigned. These kaleidoscopic turns in filial dynamics leave you eager to see where Franzen takes his family saga next.
By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 580 pages, $28
Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.