Ethos of the ’60s

With ‘Great Neck,’ you can go home again

Jay Cantor says that growing up on Long Island in the fifties and sixties was a good thing for the writer he turned out to be. “People were drunk with their own self-importance,” he said, “but at the least, they did things that were interesting. Sometimes what they did was awful, sometimes grand, but it was good for a writer.”

Jay Cantor © Mark Morelli

Cantor, professor of English, took his experiences of growing up in an affluent Long Island, Jewish community and his involvement in the political movements of the sixties and transformed them into a 700-page novel. Great Neck (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003) is named after the town he grew up in, a place he recalls as a contradictory stew of materialism and idealism, a place that fostered for some, he said, a search for Prada handbags, but that for others, resulted in a lifelong quest to heal the world. His novel was chosen as a Notable Book of 2003 by the New York Times in its December “Book Review.”

Cantor spoke recently at a meeting of the Friends of Tisch Library where he told his audience of students and others that it took him 12 years to write his book “so that when you turn in a paper late, I’m very sympathetic.”

Great Neck tells the story of a group of childhood friends. The brother of one is murdered in Mississippi during the civil rights movement. Another becomes involved in the radical Students for a Democratic Society and ends up robbing a truck and going to prison. While much of the action doesn’t even take place in Great Neck, the New York City suburb and its culture are the underpinnings for the young people in the novel just as it was for Cantor.

“I wasn’t thinking about the town,” he said. “What was central to me was the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the ethos of the ’60s. There was a utopian speculation by people then, thinking that consciousness and life could be totally different. To a fiction writer, it seemed different from most generations. I was also interested in Jewish involvement. It was interesting to me that many Jews involved, like me, had come from fairly privileged backgrounds.”

A soft-spoken man, Cantor has been compared to Woody Allen, both for his bespectacled appearance and his mocking humor.

“A lot of Great Neck was about money,” he acknowledged. “But I don’t think people gave themselves over to money. To my surprise, many people did not want Prada handbags but had ambitions for social justice. They felt they could make a difference in the world.”

Cantor’s father was a doctor and writer. “My family moved from Queens to Great Neck and felt it was as big as their parents moving from Poland to the United States. In the 1950s, this was the first generation of Jews to have some money. When Evelyn Waugh was in Beverly Hills, he said, ‘I was never anti-Semitic before, but I am now. It is intolerable seeing the Jews having a good time.’ It’s intolerable even to Jews. We have to break a glass at a wedding.”

At the Tisch appearance, Cantor read a section of his book that he adapted into a short story about grade school boys who learn for the first time about the Holocaust and who are unnerved, realizing that despite being in the United States, it could happen to them.

He recalled that during his own childhood, he overheard remarks from his parents about the Holocaust. “It’s very hard to talk to a child about the destruction of the Jews in Europe,” he said. “It was everywhere and nowhere. It was rarely talked about with sufficient directness, but there was an undertone. My parents really thought it could happen again.”

He did a reading of Great Neck in, yes, Great Neck. “It was very sweet, and all I could have hoped for, including much older women who remembered me when I was five.”

Cantor is now working on a novel that is primarily set in 17th-century England, with some of the action taking place in Boston during the school busing crisis in the 1970s.