Even with God on their side, the Hildebrandt family at the center of Jonathan Franzen's intermittently powerful new novel are far from redeemed. They live in the Chicago suburb of New Prospect, which despite its name is no Eden of optimism or happiness.
Franzen's previous novels (including his breakout "The Corrections" and his St. Paul-set "Freedom") fall into the married-with-children category, and "Crossroads" is no exception. New in this weighty fiction is the centering of religion.
That Franzen, so attuned to liberal boomer culture, chooses to write about Christianity may seem curious, given today's decline in religious identification among Americans. But "Crossroads" is mainly set in 1971, when nearly three of four Americans said they belonged to a church.
Russ Hildebrandt is a handsome 47-year-old assistant pastor at the village's First Reformed Church. He and his wife, Marion, have four children.
The book, first in an announced trilogy, opens at Christmastime. Russ is on a mission to a predominantly Black church on Chicago's South Side. His act of Christian charity is countered by the fact that he has the hots for Frances Cottrell, a widowed parishioner who rides along with him that day.
The massively insecure Russ — vain, childish, preachy, spiteful — confesses he is "bad at being bad." This does not stop him from having a go at half the cardinal sins. Fascinating and frustrating by turns, Russ is among Franzen's most memorable protagonists. In his inner conflicts we see our own ridiculousness.
Cracks in the suburban facade become chasms as we learn Marion's horrific back story and are introduced to the couple's children, including college student Clem, the "amoral brainiac" Perry and pretty, popular Becky.
Russ is in the throes of a personal and professional humiliation involving a work mission to a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. He has had a falling out over it with a more popular youth minister, Rick Ambrose.
This belabored story line struck me as too minor to occupy so much of the novel's first half. Franzen's interest in larger issues — pacifism, sin, sex, betrayal, guilt, class conflict, Christian forgiveness — is often buried beneath mountains of angsty prose that seem like backwaters to his narrative's forward flow.
The church youth group, called "Crossroads," runs on 1970s-style progressive politics and pop psychology that apes the dorks-versus-cool-kids dynamic common to a high school cafeteria. Franzen revels in the scalding emotions of adolescence, those lacerating highs and lows that even his middle-aged characters haven't outgrown.
Things pick up in the second half. Clem and his father argue when Clem announces he's quitting college to join the military in the waning days of the Vietnam War. Russ confronts Ambrose with a classic faux apology. In an Albee-scale war of words between Russ and Marion, her anger strikes like lightning, and Russ counters cruelly. Their marriage appears in tatters. With cinematic vividness, Franzen gives us two unforgettable episodes on the Navajo reservation, one involving Russ and Frances, another a perilous all-night escapade starring Perry.
These marvelous, complicated scenes are handled with tremendous energy. They are keen and alive, satisfying and dynamic, if also mortifying.
Similarly well done — though placed awkwardly late in the book — is a long flashback to Russ' odd upbringing in an isolated Mennonite community in rural Indiana. It helps answer questions about Russ that we've had for hundreds of pages.
In "Crossroads," Franzen — known as a crank and a sometimes savage social satirist — offers an ambiguous critique of the church, which he presents as both promise and charade.
Idealistic Russ "has a vision of a nation transformed by vigorously Christian ethics," but his own moral compass is beyond repair. Becky, capable of "seeing the face of God" the first time she smokes pot, tries to hurt her father by seeking a different church. Marion is born again late in the story, but given her unstable mental health, that comes across as a precarious leap of faith.
For three out of six Hildebrandts, church is a place where God & Son wait patiently, ready to deliver a sort of body rush of goodness, simplicity and joy, but it surely fails as a bulwark against the path of sin and vanity.
By novel's end the family is broke and badly splintered, hanging together by the barest of threads. And setting up multiple intriguing possibilities for a (redemptive?) sequel.
Claude Peck is a former Star Tribune editor and columnist.
By: Jonathan Franzen.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 592 pages, $28.
Virtual event: In conversation with Kathy Wang, 7 p.m. Oct. 7. Hosted by Magers & Quinn. Tickets $32.49-$36.49, includes book. bit.ly/3kpTCRL