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.