Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Crossroads,’ a Mellow, ’70s-Era Heartbreaker That Starts a Trilogy

Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Crossroads,” is the first in a projected trilogy, which is reason to be wary. Good trilogies rarely announce themselves as such at the start. And the overarching title for the series, “A Key to All Mythologies,” may be a nod to “Middlemarch,” but it also sounds as if Franzen were channeling Joseph Cornell, or Robert Bly, or Tolkien, or Yes.

And yet here’s the novel itself, and it’s a mellow, marzipan-hued ’70s-era heartbreaker. “Crossroads” is warmer than anything he’s yet written, wider in its human sympathies, weightier of image and intellect. If I missed some of the acid of his earlier novels, well, this one has powerful compensations.

“Crossroads” is a big novel, nearly 600 pages. Franzen patiently clears space for the slow rise and fall of character, for the chiming of his themes and for a freight of events — a car wreck, rape, suicide attempts, adultery, drug deals, arson — that arrive only slowly, as if revealed in sunlight creeping steadily across a lawn.

The novel is set in suburban Chicago. At its center are the Hildebrandts, another of the author’s seemingly solid Midwestern families — like the Probsts in “The Twenty-Seventh City” (1988), the Hollands in “Strong Motion” (1992), the Lamberts in “The Corrections” (2001) and the Berglunds in “Freedom” (2010) — with eggshell foundations.

This is a novel with strong religious themes. In Franzen’s fiction, families are their own form of religion, with options for salvation and purification, and just as many for apostasy. Perhaps the biggest danger, in his families, is to misread one’s position in them.

The title, “Crossroads,” refers to the name of a popular youth group at a local church, but it’s got a second meaning. The family patriarch, Russ Hildebrandt, is also the church’s idealistic associate pastor and an unreconstructed blues fan, and he lends his Robert Johnson records to a younger, adorable, widowed church member he’d like to sleep with. (Russ is married.)

You know the legend about Johnson: He met the devil at the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Miss., where he exchanged his soul for mastery of the guitar. Throughout this novel each of the major characters — Russ, his wife, Marion, and three of their children, Clem, Becky and Perry — suffer crises of faith and of morality. They stand at their own crossroads and study what the devil has on offer.

For Russ, who has suffered a variety of professional humiliations, the crisis is one of authenticity. His potential lover puts Johnson on the turntable (“I went down to the cross road, babe, I looked both east and west / Lord, I didn’t have no sweet woman, babe, in my distress”), and the sound plunges Russ “into the hissing, low-fidelity world from which Robert Johnson was singing. He’d never felt more pierced by the beauty of the blues, the painful sublimity of Johnson’s voice, but also never more damned by it.”

Jonathan Franzen, whose new novel is “Crossroads.”Credit…Janet Fine

When younger, Russ had marched with Stokely Carmichael; he’d helped desegregate local pools. But in his suburban church he fears he’s “a latter-day parasite — a fraud. It came to him that all white people were frauds, a race of parasitic wraith-people, and none more so than he.” His kids, increasingly, view him with disgust. Clem asks, “Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is to be your son?”

Like Franzen himself at times, in the public arena if not on the page, Russ is so intolerable and so uncool, such an ungainly apparition from an earlier era, that you sense him on the verge of redemption, of coming out the other side. Franzen’s cultural situation these past two decades sometimes reminds me of Orson Welles’s comment to Kenneth Tynan: “My trouble is that I exude affluence. I look successful. Whenever the critics see me, they say to themselves: It’s time he was knocked — he’s had it too good for too long. But I haven’t.”

The Hildebrandt kids are all right, or so they seem at first. But Clem, who’s gone off to college, is returning with news (he’s volunteered to fight in Vietnam) that will gravely wound his pacifist father. Becky is a strait-laced high school social sovereign — everything she does is front-page drive-in news — who discovers the counterculture degradations of sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, albeit not in that order. Her younger brother Perry is a high-I.Q. misfit and drug dealer. He’s like a bowling ball spinning, at velocity, toward some unknown target.

Franzen threads these stories, and their tributaries, so adeptly and so calmly that at moments he can seem to be on high-altitude, nearly Updikean autopilot. The character who cracks this novel fully open — she’s one of the glorious characters in recent American fiction — is Marion, Russ’s wife.

When we first meet her, she’s a frump, virtually a nonentity, an overweight pastor’s spouse, invisible except as a “warm cloud of momminess.” Russ, who puts people in mind of Atticus Finch and a young Charlton Heston, is embarrassed by Marion and “her sorry hair, her unavailing makeup, her seemingly self-spiting choice of dress.”

Marion is another of Franzen’s awkward, mortified women, like Enid Lambert and Patty Berglund, who come full circle. Franzen methodically begins to peel back the layers of Marion’s life, layers that are largely unknown to her husband and family: her months in a mental hospital when in her 20s, her doomed affair with a married car dealer out West, an abortion available only at the mercy of a man who rapes her repeatedly over many days.

Marion, in mid-novel, wakes up. “She was a mother of four,” she realizes, “with a 20-year-old’s heart.” She’s not a good person, she tells herself. She lies; she steals jewelry. Later in the novel she punctures whatever is left of Russ’s vanity. Sometimes, only the devil’s logic seems to apply to her. She can resemble a character out of Muriel Spark’s fiction, a thwarted girl of slender means who becomes an unlikely heroine.

The action in “Crossroads” flows and ebbs toward several tour-de-force scenes. One occurs at a cocktail party; another on Navajo land in Arizona, where the youth group has gone on retreat.

The Franzen-shaped hole in our reading lives is like a bog that floods at roughly eight-year intervals. This time that bog is shot through with intimations of light.

Flannery O’Connor spoke of the “moment of grace” that appears in many of her stories, “a moment where it is offered, and usually rejected.” Franzen’s novel is flush with such moments. It’s about tests most of us fear we are not going to pass. “It was strange that self-pity wasn’t on the list of deadly sins,” Russ thinks. “None was deadlier.”

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