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Grand Ambitions
By Carlo Wolff

Great Neck
By Jay Cantor •
Alfred A. Knopf, 701 Pages, $27.95

Jay Cantorís Great Neck aims to do in fiction what The Big Chill did in film and Rhino Records does in rock & roll: summarize a period, a zeitgeist. Fiction suffers, however, in Cantorís wringing hands, because Great Neck, an encyclopedic effort to contain and explain the í60s and í70s, fails at both. Far too long, it contains several potentially betteróand shorterónovels.

Noble of intent and overwhelmingly ambitious, Great Neck is a book one reads more with dread than admiration. The writing can be engrossing, the psychological insights acute. Certain relationships are even intriguing, and the basic premise is unimpeachable: It tries to examine how growing up privileged, Jewish and intellectual on Long Island blended with the birth of the civil rights movement.

Unfortunately, Cantor doesnít know where to draw the line in either character or concept. Peppering his themes with meditations on popular cultureóspecifically, comic books, along with Andy Warhol and his homosexual milieuónot only dilutes the book, it seems too trendy.

Oh, yes, the plot. It involves Weather Underground heroine Beth Jacobs and her doomed lover Frank Jaffe and Frankís sister Laura and Lauraís husband Arkey Kaplan and mulatto attorney David Watkins and firebrand Sugar Cane and asthmatic, charismatic black leader Jacob Battle and Special Agent Olson and sociologist-philosopher Herbert Marcuse and Marcuseís wife Inge and Mark Rudd and characters both fictional and factual. It feels like a cast of thousands.

Great Neck is a kind of roman ŗ clef, an exploration of the dynamics that twined the Weather Underground with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers. It is about how the most noble causes are corrupted, as when Beth is involved in the killing of a bank guard as part of a scheme to rob money to fund an alternative school. Itís got issues to burn.

The rub is, Cantor can write. Take this description of Arthur ďArkeyĒ Kaplan, just out of the hospital where heís been treated for skin cancer. Itís from the beginning of the book, and itís so good you want to continue reading:

Arkey wore his long-sleeved shirt buttoned to the top so he couldnít tickle his weak-willed skin. He had a white scarf around his neck and a Panama on his head, and he even kept his hands in his pockets. Moisture bloomed under his arms, formed a fragrant acid-and-roses river with the Guerlain cologne he wore to mask his continual sweating.

The detail is so delicious and precise, you think Kaplan might be a major character. Turns out heís minor, a Cantor proxy, a commentator on and absorber of events that heís willing to consider but wonít dare try to influence.

The pivot of the novel is the murder of Frank Jaffe in Mississippi. Itís an echo of the historical murder of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964. Frankís killing drives Beth to the Weather Underground, where she befriends various chemists and ultimately has a daughter. Unfortunately, Beth is busted, brought to trial, and sentenced. Her story gives the plot what little drive it has. Her story is also far too deeply woven into this novelís fabric to breathe.

The way Cantor swings between the Long Island group and the black activists, who are largely centered in Boston, accurately reflects the intellectual crosscurrents of the times. But the swing becomes enervating: Every time one level of the story gains momentum, Cantor turns his attention to the other.

More discipline and straightforwardness might have made Great Neck as exciting as the times it aims to portray. Ultimately, however, Great Neck, despite an elegant, heartfelt ending, isnít worth the time and focus it demands.

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