“Crossroads” Asks: What Does It Mean to Be Good?

posted in: Good Reads: Fiction | 0

Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads was a gift. Listening to it in my car during the Holiday season was like an audio advent calendar. Each new  commute-long section brought surprises, like daily presents wrapped up just for me. As it happened, I finished the book on Christmas Eve afternoon. The tension held until the end but, alas, never fully resolved. I was let down until I discovered a final stocking stuffer in the author’s interview at the end of the audiobook. Franzen revealed he is already working on the sequel of what will eventually be a trilogy. Thank you, Santa!

In fact, the book is structured around the two major holidays of the Christian liturgical calendar. Part I is titled “Advent;” part II, “Easter.”  Religion and religious experience feature prominently in the narrative. The father in the Hildebrandt family is pastor of First Reformed Church of New Prospect, a comfortable suburb of Chicago. The eponymous Crossroads is the church’s touchy-feely youth group. (The book is set in groovy 1971.) Two of the five main characters, not including the pastor, find God in the course of the book. And the central question the novel asks is of ultimate moral importance: What does it mean to be good? The reader gets different…well, not answers, but different sub-questions with each character.

Clem is the older brother, whom his sister, Becky, adores. Accompanying Clem on nature walks, the young Becky develops a sensibility that will set her apart from other girls as she matures. Seeking to be with him as often as she can, Becky steals into his room and falls asleep on his bed. Unwilling to wake her up, Clem as sleeps on the floor. The sequence repeats, over and over. Theirs is a special relationship, though they both wonder later if perhaps it was rather an unhealthily weird relationship. By the time the story begins–he 19 or 20; she 17 or 18–they have inhabited completely separate niches in the biome of high school. Becky is socially powerful, admired by all for her looks, grace, and (ostensible) goodness. She is a queen bee without the sting. She abjures drugs, retains her virginity, and generously shares her social clout with the less fortunate (cool). Brainy and awkward, Clem is the polar opposite: a social outsider and happy about it, thank you very much.

Then Clem goes to college, and his easy assumptions of the world fall apart. He realizes that being “good” in high school came easily more due to chance than an inherent superiority. He had no interest in sex or drugs or even rock-and-roll. So he studied and got good grades. But at the University of Illinois, after discovering the pleasures of sex with Sharon, suddenly, temptation becomes real, procrastination habitual, and mediocre grades the result. His scholarship money falls in jeopardy. How different is he, now, from the slackers he knew in high school?

Becky follows a very different path to similarly self-critical understandings. As rich as she is in social clout as the novel begins, she pines after even more, if she can only capture the interest of the guitar-playing, ultra-cool Tanner Evans (who, ironically, behaves consistently and genuinely “good” throughout the book). The reader recognizes Becky has strong desires but isn’t convinced she even knows what she wants. In a crisis during the first part of the book, Becky experiences the presence of God and undergoes a radical transformation. Even so, her doubt-inducing mental double-bind resurfaces in the second part of the book. She wonders if her withholding sex from Tanner is its own form of vanity? (Tanner the Good never pressures her.) She even gets annoyed when her mother encourages her (before expecting her) to get the appropriate protection. Acquiring a diaphragm and contraceptive jelly from the clinic, Becky thinks, would make her just like “all the other girls who….” The thought confirms for her (and the reader) her persistent pridefulness, avowed submission to God notwithstanding. And Franzen confirms the slipperiness of goodness once again.

Perry is the gifted, troubled younger brother, age 15. Through Perry, Franzen is able to voice most directly the philosophical difficulty of living a “good” life. In my favorite scene in the book, Perry, holds forth with a Rabbi and a Presbyterian minister, about this very quandary. It is literary comedy of the highest order, not least for ending so wrenchingly sadly.

Due to the most unlikely sequence of events, Perry finds himself the sole representative of the family (other than 9-year-old J, whom Perry was left to look after) attending the Reverend Haifley’s Christmas open house. Among the unlikely events are Perry’s rapprochement with his sister. The reader is pleased to see Perry follow through on his resolution to become a better person, but Perry is more circumspect. He can’t escape the thought that his “goodness”–going to the party with J and allowing Becky to go out with Tanner–was driven by self-interest. After depositing his brother in the basement with the other kids to watch Miracle on 34th Street, Perry heads upstairs to make the most of the party.

His recent swearing off of pot had said nothing about alcohol. So, he slinks over to the punch bowl and makes quick work of two glasses of Mrs. Haifley’s famous (and potent) glögg. A third cupped surreptitiously in hand, he approaches the rabbi and minister mentioned above. The moral question he has been wrestling with for many of the last twenty pages comes spilling out. Can one do good without being self-interested? What delight for the reader to envision these men of the cloth doing their best to keep pace with this precocious teenager. Fueled by glögg, Perry is in rare form. The watchful Reverend’s wife does her best to steer him to another room where the teenagers are hanging out. Alas, the scene ends in disaster. The inebriated Perry breaks down, Why is it always me who gets the blame? His mother, inexcusably late, enters just in time to witness his lament.

It’s not that kind of entry. Marion will not scold her middle son, her favorite. She is sensitive to his sensitivities and understanding of his issues. Still, she knows nothing of his drug habit, and, in the following scene of mother and son “coming to Jesus,” she is shocked to learn that her Perry is dealing drugs. If anything, Perry is even more discomfited by this mother’s frankness about her own closeted skeletons. She discloses to him what the reader has learned over dozens of preceding pages. In short: Marion is no strait-laced “librarian.” She hides a past completely at odds with the Midwest pastor’s wife, mother-of-four submissiveness she projects to the world. Marion does not struggle with the question of what it means to be good, as her children do, because she already “knows” she is bad? Her negativity makes her a difficult character, at times: difficult to like, difficult to understand. Yet Marion’s self-hatred has its roots in an all-too-common phenomenon: mental illness. Her presence in the book allows Franzen to take the exploration of his central question in surprising and important directions.

Russ provides a very different kind of counterpoint to his children. He is a ridiculously comedic character. His position as pastor of First Reformed Church would seem to entitle him to a presumption of goodness. His liberal activism and charitable work for the less-privileged would seem more than enough to seal the deal. Russ marched with the big names in the Civil Rights movement. He knows how to wield every tool, fix any machine, build any home necessary. He is not afraid of hard labor, inter-racial gatherings, or deprivation of material comforts, whether on the South Side of Chicago or a Navajo Indian reservation. But the reader is also privy to his mental life, which is a farrago of adolescent desires and insecurities. In a book about what it means to be good, Russ is a negative example. The reader knows he is not. Franzen is not merely condemning hypocrisy: liberal preacher fighting for civil rights while brazenly ignoring the needs of his own family members and otherwise being a creep. In Russ, Franzen is drawing the book’s theme in the broadest, most exaggerated brush strokes. Who we are, what we do, what we think and feel, how others perceive us never align perfectly, or even particularly well. Often, as in Russ, they are distinctly at odds. (Be assured, Russ gets his comeuppance, adopts his own version of self-hatred, and becomes perhaps even sympathetic by the end.)


In my first year as a classroom teacher, among my sixteen fourth grade students was a boyish boy, destined to be an alpha male by middle school if he wasn’t already: athletic, good-looking, socially-adept. R was “energetic,” too, a bit of a “trouble-maker,” though always able to pull back when things went too far. And always, almost unnervingly, polite. How could you come down hard on such a kid? I said as much to his parents at a conference. His mother, deeply tanned, dressed a bit too suggestively for her age, and speaking in the husky voice of a smoker, averred that she and her husband raised all their children to have impeccable manners. His father, also tan, also a smoker, with the imposing square build of a football lineman, assented. I came away from the conference with a new thought, a realization: good manners were, or could be, as self-serving as they are, or can be, other-oriented. The well-heeled and the moneyed compound the interest on their social capital by passing on to their children socially acceptable manners, not just trust funds. I could say the experience/thought elevated my understanding of ethics, or I might say it drove a crack in the foundation on which my previous understandings had been built. The exploits of the Hildebrandts in Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads provided a similar experience, though in the context of his deftly conceived fiction, that much broader and deeper: elation at the elevation of my thinking, dizziness at the disequilibrium these thoughts provoked.

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