The Wash­ing­ton Story

  • Review
May 25, 2012

The elec­tion and decline of Harold Wash­ing­ton, the first African-Amer­i­can may­or of Chica­go, pro­vides the back­drop for Adam Langer’s The Wash­ing­ton Sto­ry. Pick­ing up a year and half after Langer’s first nov­el, Cross­ing Cal­i­for­nia, ends, the tale fol­lows the same col­lec­tion of fam­i­lies with ties to West Rogers Park in north­ern Chica­go over the course of a five-year peri­od. Langer deft­ly inter­twines polit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal events such as the explo­sion of the Chal­lenger space shut­tle, the pass­ing of Halley’s comet, and the decline of the East­ern Euro­pean bloc, with the per­son­al lives of his characters. 

At the cen­ter of the sto­ry are Muley Wills and Jill Wasser­strom, who begin the book as high school stu­dents and evolve both indi­vid­u­al­ly and as a cou­ple over the course of the nov­el. Wills has a bur­geon­ing tal­ent for film­mak­ing and his craft devel­ops in fan­tas­tic direc­tions, echo­ing some of the major events of his time. Wasserstrom’s skill is jour­nal­ism and her fas­ci­na­tion involves uncov­er­ing and under­stand­ing the pol­i­tics that dri­ve the events in people’s lives. The two are an artis­ti­cal­ly dynam­ic and insight­ful pair. Langer rich­ly devel­ops their per­son­al­i­ties along­side those of the oth­er char­ac­ters in the novel. 

Langer’s prose is wild­ly-paced, almost fre­net­ic. Each para­graph is packed with more ideas than are found in some nov­els. The broad sweep of his lan­guage includes pol­i­tics, sports, music, film, and Judaism, both reli­gious and cul­tur­al. Langer even includes an index of movies, plays, musi­cians, songs, and Hebrew and Yid­dish phras­es for those less informed. His obser­va­tion of detail, both of peri­od and place, is immense, intense and almost over­whelm­ing. Read­ing the book is ini­tial­ly exhaust­ing and the read­er finds him or her­self beg­ging Langer to take a breath. Even­tu­al­ly, how­ev­er, the strength and pow­er of the char­ac­ters rise above the noise and, almost imper­cep­ti­bly, the read­er is left wish­ing for more.

Discussion Questions