America’s #1 novelist man debuts an epic about Christianity in the Chicago suburbs
In real life, Jonathan Franzen keeps migrating from coast to coast, like the birds he watches in his spare time. According to the author bio for his new novel, Crossroads, Franzen now lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., after years in New York City. In his fiction, though, Franzen rarely leaves his native Midwest. The Corrections was about a family from St. Jude, a stand-in for St. Louis. He set ‘Freedom’ in Minneapolis. Crossroads takes place in the western suburbs of Chicago, where Franzen was born.
In 2021, it could hardly be less fashionable to publish a novel about a middle-aged, middle-class pastor at a Mainline Protestant church in a mid-century Midwestern suburb. America’s most ambitious novelist comes from exactly that background, though, so we’re going to read it, and thanks to Franzen’s narrative powers, we’re not going to be able to stop.
Even in 1971, when the book takes place, Crossroads’s main character, Russ Hildebrandt, is as out of style as sit-ins and hootenannies. A 47-year-old associate minister at First Reformed in New Prospect, Ill., Russ finds himself on the outs as the leader of Crossroads, the church’s Godspell/Jesus Christ Superstar-era youth group, replaced by Rick Ambrose, a hip, young, mustachioed acolyte. The 63-year-old senior pastor won’t stop droning about Reinhold Neibuhr from the pulpit. Caught between generations, Russ sulks in his office, decorated with totems of an earlier era of rebellion–posters of Charlie Parker, Dylan Thomas, and Paul Robeson–and leads widows on charity missions to a church in the South Side ghetto. God reminds the self-pitying Russ that “the way to endure misery was to humble himself, think of the poor, and be of service.”
One of those widows isn’t so old. Frances Cottrell, who lost her test pilot husband in a jet crash, is 37 and still pixieish. Frances reawakens in Russ feelings he’s long since lost for his wife Marion. Twenty-five years earlier, Marion had been a big city sexual tyro when she seduced Mennonite farm boy Russ while he was performing conscientious objector service in Arizona during World War II. Since then, she’s become as dowdy as the church-provided parsonage where the Hildebrandts live with their four children: intellectual Clem; social queen Becky; clever but drug-addled Perry; and nine-year-old Judson.
Russ’s pursuit of the merry widow–and its resolution–is the central plot point of Crossroads, which isn’t just the name of a church, but of a Robert Johnson song on a 78 LP Russ loans to Frances, partly to impress her with his cultural cachet, partly to help her understand the pain of the Black parishioners they’re serving. (Russ’s nemesis, Rick Ambrose, thinks “Crossroads” is a song by Cream, he tells Frances disdainfully.)
The reader will feel as embarrassed for Russ as his children are embarrassed by him. (Perry sneeringly calls Russ “the reverend father.”) As in The Corrections and Freedom, Franzen’s approach to his characters is to observe, rather than sympathize. That is not, in this case, the same as judging them. As an author, Franzen is a loving God, and Crossroads is an extraordinarily Christian novel, sure to be a popular choice in book clubs at the kind of Big Steeple Protestant churches where Russ preaches. Most of the action takes place around Christmas and Easter, the two festivals of renewal. For most of the novel, the motivating sins in Russ’s life are wrath toward Rick and lust for Frances. Rather than condemning his man of the cloth as a hypocrite, though, Franzen seems to understand that religion is most attractive to those most in need of grace.
Besides, Marion herself turns out to be more than a housewife scorned. Like everyone else in New Prospect, she detects that the guileless Russ is straying, so she starts smoking and loses 30 pounds in the hopes of impressing an old flame in Los Angeles. While Frances accompanies Russ on a Crossroads mission trip to a Navajo reservation in Arizona, Marion takes Judson to Disneyland. When a cataclysm involving their son Perry reunites them in an Albuquerque hotel room, Russ blurts to Marion, “I don’t deserve joy.” Marion is the product of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, but her response–“No one does. It’s a gift from God”–shows she has absorbed Russ’s Protestantism even more deeply than he has. (Probably why he depends on his wife to write his sermons.)
Since Crossroads is about adulterous Protestants in the suburbs in the early ’70s, the obvious comparison is to John Updike. Except for the disdainful reference to Niebuhr, Franzen’s theology is less intellectual than Updike’s, and more spiritual. Franzen is less self-consciously in love with his own prose than Updike, and he excels at the marathon of the novel, whereas Updike was best suited for the sprint of the short story. Crossroads is the first of a three-volume series titled The Key to All Mythologies, a nod to Middlemarch, by George Eliot, one of the epic 19th Century novelists Franzen means to emulate.
Franzen has certainly created a multi-generational cast that will carry him through a trilogy. Clem, the oldest son, drops out of the University of Illinois, hoping that the draft will send him Vietnam, thus rejecting his father’s pacifism and piety. When the draft board won’t take him, he drifts like a Beat novel character to New Orleans, then Mexico, then South America. Perry, a high school pot dealer, he joins Crossroads partly to spite his father, partly to perform the intellectual exercise of penetrating its cliquish inner circle. Becky doesn’t need to strive for social acceptance, and seems to lose interest in it after undergoing a religious conversion while smoking her first joint. She’s infatuated with a fatuous folksinger, blind to the fact that his talent won’t take him beyond clubs in the Chicago suburbs.
Franzen doesn’t take us much beyond the Chicago suburbs, except on Russ’s do-gooder expeditions. Franzen was born in Western Springs, Illinois, which seems to be the model for New Prospect. He’s attuned to suburbia’s mania for status, and how that drives Russ to lead his flock into encounters with the less fortunate. This is the second blockbuster literary novel to feature the Chicago suburbs in the last five years, following Nathan Hill’s The Nix. In the early 20th Century, Chicago was the place to set a big realist novel, attracting Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, and Upton Sinclair. A hundred years later, ambitious novelists have followed their readers to the suburbs.