Coming-of-age story evokes spirit of 1976
WHEN THE WHITE HOUSE WAS OURS
By Porter Shreve
Mariner, 288 pp., $12.95
Consider, if you will, the plight of the semiautobiographical novelist who comes of age under the spell of the Carter administration. In Porter Shreve's third novel, Daniel Truitt recalls the pivotal year in which his family fortunes reflected the deflated hopes of the Carter years in microcosm. How you feel about this conceit - and how you feel about the book - may depend on whether you share Daniel's sense of 1976 as a time of glorious tragedy, or think of it as just a slightly pathetic precursor to malaise.
That summer, as Carter's star rises and bicentennial fever grips the nation, Daniel and his family arrive in D.C. with an idealistic purpose: to found an alternative school, "where no one would be hemmed in by rules." Twelve-year-old Daniel, obsessed with presidential history but an otherwise indifferent scholar, will be the school's first student.
For faculty, Daniel's father relies on himself, his wife, her ne'er-do-well brother, Linc, and two of Linc's fellow commune dropouts. For a schoolhouse, he secures a ramshackle white mansion, temporarily rent-free. Lest the white house/White House parallel escape us, Shreve announces his thesis early, which has the unfortunate effect of stripping the book of suspense. "Like Jimmy Carter's presidency," he tells us in a prologue, "our years in Washington began with hope then slid into crisis. Three administrations and more than two decades have come and gone. . . . But there was a time, back in our own white house, when every possibility seemed to open up for us."
Given our current moment of audacious hope, there's a certain timeliness in looking back to an earlier era of liberal optimism, and reminding ourselves of the disappointment that can follow. But there are two problems with explicitly pegging your plot to the fizzle of Carter-era expectations. First, we know how it ends: Reaganism. Second, while Shreve ably depicts the exhilaration of an adolescent amid the events of 1976 and 1977, it's an uphill battle to get an adult audience in 2008 to share the excitement.
A third problem dogs this book as well, one common to semiautobiographical novels. (As Shreve reveals in the acknowledgments, his family did indeed start an alternative school in the 1970s - in a beige house, in Philadelphia.) Nostalgia and period detail make fine raw material, but at some point a novel must take on a convincing life of its own, and this one never does. Minor characters, like the kid from the 'hood who impresses the Truitts with his textbook-like monologues about zeppelins, often feel bogus, and the school's crises are handled too lightly to be realistic and too predictably to reach the giddy heights of farce. Daniel's parents feud constantly but inconsequentially, while a lecherous hippie teacher plus a nymphomaniac student equals exactly what you think it equals. The collapse of the house of cards is swift and inevitable. Shreve's crisp, competent writing keeps it all pleasant to read, but his language doesn't dazzle sufficiently to distract from the flaws.
Yet there's something lovable, and authentic, at this book's core. Despite the rickety fictional apparatus surrounding Daniel, his affection for this era is radiantly apparent. Shreve evokes the emotional landscape of a late-'70s adolescent with tender familiarity: the excitement around the touring King Tut exhibit, the mingled allure and repellence of the counterculture, the dawning recognition that rhetoric and reality can be worlds apart. As we learn at the end, the adult Daniel parlays this strangely luminous year into a career as a Carter biographer. But spinning personal experience into fictional gold is perhaps a greater challenge, and "When the White House Was Ours" never quite achieves that alchemy.