Barry Levinson's first novel, Sixty-Six, is a wordier, more pretentious version of his wonderful 1982 movie, Diner.
Like Diner, Sixty-Six is set in Levinson's hometown, Baltimore, and like Diner, it chronicles the lives of half a dozen young men on the fence between the dalliances of youth and the more sobering realities of grown-up life. As in Diner, the action focuses on a neighborhood diner where the characters spend most of their free time, hanging out. And as in Diner, Levinson uses a breezily episodic approach to storytelling, capturing his characters' struggles with love and sex and work through a series of memory-vignettes.
Although Diner was set in 1959 and Sixty-Six takes place largely in 1966, many of the people in this novel are reminiscent of those in the film. There's the troubled, erratic young man whose angst takes the form of odd, absurdist gestures; there's the one with woman problems; the one trying to figure out what to do about his career; the one who married early and who already finds his marriage on the rocks.
Levinson is at his best memorializing the small, everyday events of everyday life; as he puts it, "frivolous moments, stand-alone moments that have no beginning, middle or end." While there are many such finely observed moments in Sixty-Six -- some uproariously funny, some haunting and sad -- the novel as a whole is considerably more turgid and long-winded than the author's finest films.
For some reason, Levinson has chosen to take a much more sociological approach to his material in these pages than he did in Diner. While the impact of Vietnam and the draft are worked persuasively into the story line, other issues are clumsily shoehorned in. One character's romance with a hippie girl is meant to dramatize changing sexual mores, while a confrontation between this character and another woman's boyfriend supposedly serves as the spark for a riot that presages a host of racial conflicts in the city.
Levinson has also used the commodious form of the novel to embroider his story heavily with philosophical asides that feel like unnecessary voice-overs, commenting on events that really require no commentary at all. Remembering a statue of George Washington at the scene of the riot, the narrator, Bobby Shine, thinks that "the father of our country" must have been "wondering what had become of his children."
Bobby can be equally sententious when it comes to developments in his own life. Of his relationship with his girlfriend, Annie, he observes, "We both understood that we were traveling through rough waters, but we didn't want to continue to burden ourselves with all the complications." Of his fledgling career in television, he muses, "There had been highs and lows, depression and euphoria. But I was beginning to understand that this was life. The one truism seemed to be that nothing remained the same."
Sixty-Six, like Diner and Levinson's film Avalon, has a distinctly autobiographical feel to it and Bobby Shine has more than a little in common with his creator: both abandoned plans to become lawyers to go to work in television, both had early jobs operating hand puppets for a children's television show, and both share a passion for storytelling and the magical possibilities of film.
The characters in Sixty-Six talk much the way the characters in Diner do -- and much like Levinson's real-life friends, who appeared in his 1999 documentary, Original Diner Guys. In addition, some of the anecdotes in this novel -- most notably, one character's riff about the song Puff the Magic Dragon -- will be familiar to viewers of that glorified home movie.
Yet however familiar these Baltimore guys may be, the cast of Sixty-Six remains an engaging lot, depicted by Levinson with wit and wry affection. While Bobby Shine is clearly the lucky, ambitious one -- the one who will eventually leave Baltimore to seek his fortune, as Levinson did, in California -- the other diner habitues seem headed toward disappointment.
Neil, always given to enigmatic actions, perversely destroys a letter that might have given him a reprieve from the draft and heads off, reluctantly, to boot camp. Ben, once known as the "King of the Teenagers," finds his marriage spiraling into disaster and his expectations of life hurtling even lower. Turko and Eggy, "the Abbott and Costello" of the group, seem caught in a kind of perpetual adolescence, trying to decode the mysteries of love and sex. These characters' lives have been defined by their late-night bull sessions at the diner and when the restaurant is sold, they understand that a chapter of their lives has closed.
Like Levinson's Baltimore movies (Diner, Tin Men,Avalon and Liberty Heights), Sixty-Six is, in retrospect, an elegy: it is not only a story about a group of guys trying to (or trying not to) grow up, but also a story about change and flux and goodbyes.
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