By Diana Wagman
October 25, 2008
Porter Shreve's latest novel, "When the White House Was Ours," is an
odd stew of nostalgia and affection, condescension and judgment. It
begins in 1976. The narrator, 15-year-old Daniel, moves with his
mother, father and sister to Washington, D.C., where his father plans
to open an alternative high school in the large but dilapidated house
of the title.
They are the family we recognize from countless novels: wacky and
creative, always teetering on the precipice of financial ruin. Mom
and Dad have teaching degrees, but they have lived a peripatetic
life, and Daniel has little faith in this latest venture. Dad's heart
is, as always, in the right place, but the realities of money,
recruiting and the landlord's demands are not part of his vision.
Throughout, Daniel acts as the more mature man of the family.
Enter Mom's brother, Linc, his wife, Cinnamon (née Cynthia), and
Cinnamon's lover, Tino. They have escaped from a failed commune,
older but no wiser, driving across the country in a VW bug covered
with ads for Salem cigarettes. Obviously they are on the lam. And the
free love they proudly espouse leaves Linc unhappy and sullen. They
represent the end of the '60s era hippies, and the trio is portrayed
as pathetic and ridiculous. They decry "The Man" and use Abbie
Hoffman's "Steal This Book" as their bible. They have no compunction
about stealing or lying to get what they want, but in this
whitewashed tale, they operate in only the friendliest and nonviolent of ways.
Will the school succeed? Will Mom and Dad divorce? Will Linc and his
cohorts get arrested and ruin everything? These are the questions
that keep the plot moving forward. There are laugh-out-loud scenes
and wonderful passages about nuns and teenage sex and dumpster
diving. Shreve is a good writer with many strengths. His previous two
novels, "The Obituary Writer" and "Drives Like a Dream," were
critical successes, but in those books, his characters are subtler
and his stories more complex. The cast here borders on cliché: the
Republican landlord, his rebellious daughter and particularly Quinn,
the homeless black boy who becomes like one of the family.
Politics, specifically Jimmy Carter's campaign for the presidency, is
a large part of this novel. Daniel is obsessed with the presidents.
He writes his own biographies of each and is a fount of historical
and arcane knowledge. It is his most unique feature -- funny, and
well done. In one passage, the family gathers "to watch Texas
Democrat Barbara Jordan become the first black woman to deliver a
keynote address at a major party convention. . . . This period when
we lived in Washington, in a white house not far from the real White
House, will always live in my memory as the pivotal moment for my
family, but it also marked my dawning awareness that our lives were
converging with something larger than ourselves, a whole country at a
crossroads." A crossroads? Or the brink of a hole we have been
descending into ever since? It is depressing to read and remember the
promise the country felt at the election of Carter. It is
discouraging to know the changes wrought so violently starting in the
'60s were not more lasting and significant. Hippies have become
little more than Halloween costumes.
Of course, these things are not Shreve's fault. Still, he seems to be
pointing a patronizing finger at the well-meaning liberals and
shaking his head like Ronald Reagan as he says, "There you go again."
Daniel's little sister demands a "normal school." Mom wants a nice
house with furniture. Daniel misses the prep school where his father
taught before. The overarching message of the novel is that the
ideals of youth cannot be sustained -- nor should they be. We must
grow up in all the conservative and traditional ways. Get a real job.
Give up the dream; it's probably impossible anyway. By making the
father's aspirations and the hippies' attempt at living off the grid
laughable and sometimes stupidly dangerous, Shreve belittles both.
Finally, and unfortunately, the author leaves us with a sentimental
and cloying present-day epilogue. Surprise, surprise! Everyone has
become a respectable, contributing member of society -- that means
financially sound. Even undereducated Linc has serendipitously
founded a frozen yogurt empire. No one actually says the words "sell
out," but they ring loud and clear.
Diana Wagman, a Cal State Long Beach professor, teaches screenplay
writing and is the author of the novels "Skin Deep," "Spontaneous" and "Bump."