A LONG ISLAND STORY, by Rick Gekoski. Canongate, 311 pp., $25.
As its title suggests, Rick Gekoski’s second novel is set on Long Island — specifically, the North Shore in the early 1950s, the era of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the persecutions of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Ben Grossman, a lawyer in the Department of Justice, had been a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s, a youthful affiliation long abandoned. Now he and his wife, Addie, a social worker, are a respectable, left-leaning couple with two children, Jake and Becca. Still, the times are such that Ben worries he will be targeted as a Communist infiltrator, fired and rendered unemployable.
The answer, as he sees it, is to slip out of the crosshairs by quitting his government job and moving from Washington, D.C., to Long Island, where Addie’s parents have a small summer place in Huntington. He will take the New York bar exam, set up his own private practice and, while he establishes himself, the family will live in a dinky two-bedroom flat in a complex blithely called Garden Apartments. Addie is appalled. She grew up in New York and, ever since, has lived in one or another big city. For her, the suburbs represent outer darkness.
Also, Ben is kind of a jerk. He cannot let go of his early aspiration to be a writer. He has one published short story and a rejected 800-page novel whose grandiose title, "Nature’s Priest," says it all. As his real career is falling apart, Ben is bootlessly scribbling away in the wee hours, and while there might be something brave or poignant about this, in his case, it is not entirely so. As we come to know Ben better we see his writerly ambition as emblematic of a self-regarding delusion, an unlovely aspect of his character that is also shown in his affair with Rhoda. Rhoda is a beautiful, exceptionally wealthy, comparatively young woman lawyer in his department — a rare bird — who believes in his literary genius. (We don’t, but then we don’t believe in Rhoda, either.)
And so we find Ben traveling back to Washington to wrap up work in the daytime and consort with his paramour at night. Meanwhile, up in Huntington, his family is temporarily squeezed in with Addie’s parents, and soon Addie is gnashing her teeth at the annoying letter Ben has sent her from D.C. aiming to shed a rosy glow on the whole dismal scene. He blathers on in a gallingly upbeat manner about what he ate at Howard Johnson’s (“Can’t get enough of those fried clams!"), how nice the family’s (horrendous) car trip from D.C. to Long Island was, and hoping, in his bouncy way, that the (cramped, depressing) apartment they will move into “is sufficiently enticing to reconcile you to the move.”
The letter is a beauty, and Ben’s flawed character is the great joy of this novel. Gekoski never overdoes it, allowing the man to reveal himself and to develop a better self without too much authorial elucidation. The other main characters, though fully drawn — with the exception of Rhoda — are more explained than shown, and more stereotypical of their era: Addie, stifled, trapped and popping sedatives; her Jewish immigrant father, a Cadillac-driving fashion bootlegger; her mother, a fussbudget presider over a groaning board; the children, a little too cute for comfort. An air of expository writing pervades much of the novel, as if the story were a means of delivering sociological information about background, mores, aspirations and circumstances of life in this particular time and place. Food, housing, work, entertainment, ethnicity and gender roles are all laid out as if by a docent.
In his acknowledgments, Gekoski tells us that the novel originated in his attempts to write a memoir of his youth as the son of a man in Ben’s predicament. His father, too, quit a government job in the early '50s and moved the family to Huntington out of the legitimate worry that his past Communist party membership would ruin him. Gekoski has added fictional elements, but his seeming desire to pin down the era and document his characters’ social, economic and political positions has a somewhat calcifying effect on the story. Still, that is really only to say that “A Long Island Story” is as much case history as novel. It is a hybrid, but, all told, an engaging one.
Rick Gekoski discusses 'A Long Island Story'
WHEN | WHERE Wednesday, Aug. 8 at 5 p.m. BookHampton, 41 Main St., East Hampton
INFO Register in advance, 631-324-4939, bookhampton.com
WHEN | WHERE Thursday, Aug. 9 at 7 p.m. Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington
INFO Register in advance, 631-271-1442, bookrevue.com