Like John Updike, novelist Jonathan Franzen’s territory is the American family, both as a lens onto the larger society and the currents swirling in and through it. In his new novel, Crossroads (580 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $30), it is the family Hildebrandt made up of Russ and Marion and their four children: Clem, Becky, Perry, and Judson. The date is 1971. The locale, a Chicago suburb.
And — new for Franzen — the Hildebrandts are a clergy family. Russ is the associate minister of a large suburban congregation who itches to have a church of his own. But even more, he itches to get into the pants of an alluring widow in the congregation, Frances Cottrell. Among Franzen’s many gifts is his ability to get inside the heads and hearts of his characters, which he does with each of the Hildebrandts (excepting the youngest, 9-year-old Judson, a.k.a. Jay) in alternating chapters.
The novel takes its title Crossroads from a huge (140 kids), popular, youth group at the vaguely named “First Reformed Church.” It evokes a time when church youth groups, powered by the baby boomer generation, were big. The church youth group — doesn’t that bring back memories! It was the era (perhaps by 1971 near the end of that era) of the “sensitivity” or “encounter group,” of “authenticity,” and of youth spurning adults (Trust No One Over 30), other than a chosen few “cool ones.” Russ, alas, doesn’t make the cut. He is excommunicated from the group because, way too earnest, he can’t manage to pull off either cool or authentic. His place is taken by a smoother, more psychologically adept and younger minister, Rick Ambrose — a onetime disciple whom Russ comes to hate.
The central character of Crossroads is neither the Reverend nor any of the three elder Hildebrandt children, all fascinating in their own right. It is Marion. By 1971, she is the frumpy, fifty-ish mom. Marion turns out to have quite the backstory. By the time we meet her, Marion is a full-on pastor’s wife: writing or rewriting Russ’s sermons, going to obligatory social engagements, trying unsuccessfully to take off the 30 pounds the years have added, all the while mothering three very different and challenging teenagers.
But before all that, and unknown to either Russ or her children, Marion had been caught up in her own obsessive affair with a married man, had an abortion, been a rape victim, spent months hospitalized for mental illness, and found God in a Catholic Church — whose doctrine she largely disagrees with. With various members of her family crashing and burning around her, Marion wages a war of reclamation beginning with herself. She is not driven — as one might expect — by appearances, but by an unsentimental love. In the end, Marion seems the most authentic, clear-sighted, of the lot.
“Crossroads,” of course, is more than the name of a church youth group. It is a metaphor for the “crossroads” at which various characters and institutions stand. Russ, who has been raised in a devout and separatist Mennonite culture, faces a crossroads as his idealistic world and idealistic version of himself, crashes. Clem’s crossroads has to do with the Vietnam War. Becky’s with sexuality, Perry’s with drugs.
The climactic events of the novel take place on a church mission trip on the Navajo lands in Arizona. This introduces themes of people of color rising against white cluelessness and presumption as part of the reckoning. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and Women’s Movement of the 1970s are also roiling the post-war consensus and complacency.
Looking back, the early 70s do seem a hinge point, a turning point writ large for American culture. It is, in retrospect, as if we came to a crossroads in our nation’s life. One way leads to life as we had known it. Another way is marked “Here be Dragons.” There is a third way, but it never quite got traction.
The then-dominant mainline Protestant Church was five years into an unsuspected, and as yet unnoticed decline — one that continues to this day. The era of a widely shared (white) middle-class prosperity is about to end in an oil embargo, recession, union busting, and an emerging global economy. No one sees these reckonings coming. Another nasty surprise, Watergate’s dirty tricks, are a year away. The Roe v. Wade decision comes in 1973, galvanizing a conservative religious movement that changed America.
The youth culture of the late 60s, heralded in books like The Greening of America, is by the early 70s devolving into drug culture and an epidemic of disillusionment and divorce. The America Franzen describes in Crossroads is one that hovers, unsuspecting, on the edge of fracture, disillusion, and decline. As a nation we peaked, at least in terms of power, reputation and unity, in the post-war period, that time after “the good war.” By the 70s we, like the Hildebrandts, were coming unmoored. Old verities no longer held. Heroes weren’t what they used to be. Winner-take-all was becoming the new and prevailing ethic.
Like Marion, we have been unable to stem that tide. But maybe we have, again like Marion, been pushed to greater depths of honesty, and pressed to find what is there when the illusions are gone.