An iconic book about American youth and friendship between young men. Everyone has had a friendship like the one Rich Cohen immortalizes in Lake Effect: a friendship that defined you at a critical time, that gave you courage, that transported you from adolescence into the beginnings of adulthood. With hilarity and disarming tenderness, Cohen chronicles a golden moment and the bittersweet legacy it left behind.
Cohen grew up on the North Shore of Chicago, in Glencoe, Illinois, "the perfect town for a certain kind of dreamy kid, with just enough history to get your arms around." In the summer, he and his friends slept on the beach: Tom Pistone, who drove a '61 Pontiac GTO, walked with a swagger, and dated girls in polka dots; Ronnie Flowers, gullible and earnest, always the butt of someone's joke; and Jamie Drew. Jamie had moved to Glencoe from a working-class town west of the city, and he had been raised without a father. Cohen was from the affluent part of town known as the Bluffs; his own father was the dominant figure in his life. The two boys became inseparable. Jamie "was what, for years, looking in a mirror, I had hoped to see looking back at me."
Lake Effect is about growing up on the Great Lakes, emerging from the shadow of a father, falling under the spell of an unforgettable friendship, and the pain of looking back on that friendship with adult eyes. What happens to the self of childhood? Can a person vanish so cleanly into adult life? In a memoir that stretches from the shores of Lake Michigan to the streets of the French Quarter to the hallowed halls of the old New Yorker, Rich Cohen captures the humble dreams--of kissing girls, getting drunk for the first time, driving to a jazz club in "the city" in a borrowed car, seeing the Cubs finally win from the cheap seats at Wrigley Field on a summer day--that fueled an epic bond between two young men. Writing at the height of his powers, with impeccable comic timing and a gift for the perfect anecdote, the indelible turn of phrase, Rich Cohen captures the grandeur and sorrow and sweetness of youth.
When Cohen's family lived in Libertyville, Ill., they were the only Jews in the town, but that was fine with their neighbors, who said, "Thank God, we were afraid they would sell to Catholics." This anecdote illuminates the ever-shifting status of outsiderness that Cohen portrayed with such precision in Tough Jews. It's also emblematic of this memoir of his youth. Cohen is less interested in cultural identity than in pinpointing the elliptical influences of the mid-1980s ("that decade, as odorless and colorless as noxious gas, came to inhabit every part of our lives") on him and his friends. Much of the memoir is a platonic love letter to his best friend, Jamie Drew, "the true hero of my youth, the most vivid presence." Cohen's prose is elegiac, nostalgic and Gatsby-esque double dates are remembered by "cheeseburgers and apple-pie... a root-beer float, a scoop of vanilla ice cream melting into its own foam... and in the rearview, Jamie whispered to his girl as the split-levels and convenience stores tumbled by" and conveys not only the fleetingness of teen years but a vivid portrait of Midwestern life. Cohen's memoir is filled with tender moments (e.g., Jamie telling him "he had a wet dream, which he called a rain dance... [which] is brought by the rain god, the sweetest and most charitable god of all"), but never loses its realistic, hard edge, such as when Jamie decides to drive while drunk and high, crying because his own father died in a drunk driving accident. Poignant and lyrical, this will please Cohen's fans and find new readers for him.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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April 07, 2003
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Excerpt from Lake Effect by Rich Cohen
In summer we slept on the beach. We would park our cars on a side street and hike through the trees to the ravine and then down to a secret little shore that only we knew about. We would get a fire going and drink red wine and look at the lights winding along the north coast and, to the south, at the haze above Chicago. Out on the lake, we could see the red hazards of ships, and sometimes a speedboat splashed its tiny wake onto the rocky sand. Jamie told stories about the lake, which he said was over a thousand feet deep, and about the ships that had gone down beyond the horizon, voices vanishing in the cold water. When the wine was gone, we sat talking about girls and fights, or what we would do next week or next month. Who could see beyond next month?
There were a lot of us on the beach, the usual crew. Tom Pistone, who wished he had been a teenager in the fifties, drove a '61 Pontiac GTO, walked with a swagger, and dated girls in polka dots. Ronnie Flowers, who tagged after us like a mascot, was simpleminded and easy to fool and knew just one way to deal with people-as the butt of a joke. Tyler White, a genius or a fool, spent hours watching construction sites.
Of all those friends, the one I remember best is Jamie Drew. Looking back, I see that Jamie was the true hero of my youth, the most vivid presence, not only of my childhood but also for kids up and down the North Shore. Words he said, gestures he crafted, swept our school like a craze, imitated, in the end, even by the teachers. He was quick and dashing and honestly the smartest person I have ever known, and yet he seemed to hold his own talents in mean regard. My mother called him a lost soul. For a long time, I saw him as a tricked-out racer rusting in the garage-that part of each of us that did not survive the rough transition into adulthood.
When the fire burned down, we buried the embers and settled on the sand, which stayed warm for hours. In the morning, the sun appeared across the lake and, one by one, we climbed the hill to our cars and drove home to top off our sleep in our warm beds. Jamie and I often dozed late on the sand and then swam up the shore to the public beach, where our friends, showered and shaved, were waiting.
This was in the middle of the 1980s. It did not seem like it at the time, but that decade, as odorless and colorless as a noxious gas, came to inhabit every part of our lives. On the radio, we listened to "Scarecrow" by John Cougar Mellencamp, each of us worrying, in his own way, about the plight of the American farmer. In the fall, we wore jean jackets and chewed tobacco-Skoal long cut. On the weekends, we disappeared on end runs to Wisconsin, where the drinking age was eighteen, returning with a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon or Point beer. Jamie's favorite beer was Mickey's Big Mouth, which he drank in noisy, head-clearing slugs. We would hide the beer in my backyard, bringing it inside only when my parents left town. A six pack might make a half dozen trips from the yard to the fridge. When a can was finally opened, it fizzled and foamed with the sweet skunk taste of summer. On television, we watched David Letterman, who was then still funny, and Ronald Reagan, whose smiling face beamed down on us. We knew that Reagan also was from Illinois, but his state and our state seemed far apart in time and place. My father called him the man with the very old face and the very young miracle hair. In school, Jamie and I studied all this in Popular Culture, a class where we also learned stereotypes from entertainment history. Our favorites were the Old Nat stereotype, which resulted in courtly black gentlemen dancing on white movie screens, and the Fu Manchu stereotype, featuring Oriental tyrants hellbent on world domination. Sometimes, as we sat on the beach, a Japanese kid would walk by and Jamie would say, "Think he suffers from the Fu Manchu stereotype?"
Most days ended with a dozen friends back at my house, sitting around the kitchen. I was at first flattered by the appeal I had for my friends, until I realized it had nothing to do with me; my friends were coming to see my father. My father was different from the other fathers in town: men in gray suits, newspaper under an arm, waiting for the train to the city. My father wore dirty brown pants and T-shirts crossed by lines and a watch on each wrist. "A man with one watch thinks he knows the time, "he would say. "A man with two watches can never be sure. "He had a job that kept him on the road. If not working, he was at home weeks at a stretch, wandering the house in reading glasses and boxer shorts. He often wore a suede cowboy hat, which, he said, identified him as a High Plains drifter. When a friend of mine, accustomed to the routines of his own father, crinkled his nose and asked, "Mr. Cohen, what is it you do?" my father wiped a plate and said, "Son, I am what you call a house husband."