Few cocktail-party disclosures in this town of transplants invoke the same degree of awe as the admission that one is a native New Yorker. “Wasn’t it weird to grow up here?” goes the standard query. “Didn’t you find it strange?” The obvious answer, of course, is that children are egocentric and tend to accept their circumstances unflinchingly, with little thought as to how they might fit into a larger mosaic. Their life is the norm.
Rebecca Chace’s uneven first novel
Capture the Flag (her previous book was the widely acclaimed memoir Chautauqua Summer: Adventures of a Late–Twentieth–Century Vaudevillian) is at its best when it is operating within this framework. Her characters— upper- middle-class adolescents struggling with sex, drugs, and identity in ’70s Manhattan— are so matter-of-fact about their exploits that the tale takes on an added level of poignancy. Whether it’s skinny-dipping in a water tower high above the city, smoking dope and drinking their parents’ liquor, or confronting sexual ambiguities, the exploits in Capture the Flag resonate
because the characters’ participation is automatic, as with any ritual of childhood.
By the middle of eighth grade, Chace’s protagonist, Annie, “was getting bored with the Quaalude parties, and she was afraid she’d end up sleeping with her old boyfriend again if she went— as if this time was going to be different and he was going to stay interested in her after he fucked her.” It’s been a tough year for Annie, saddled with her parents’ breakup and her mother’s breakdown on top of the usual teen troubles. But to Annie, there is nothing incongruous about wanting her father to read to her and delighting in an afternoon of kite-flying with her mother, while also leading an active sex life, doing drugs, and roaming free in the city— from the Upper West Side to Washington Square Park to Coney Island. Like Annie, Chace pays no regard to the seeming paradox— and it is this nonchalance that proves most intriguing, beckoning the reader forward.
Annie’s world is one where the adults can barely keep their own lives together, and the children are often left to figure it out for themselves. Her mother sometimes has trouble just getting out of bed in the morning; her father falls in love with a younger woman. Her best friends are three sisters, Liz, Tessa, and Sam, who live in a subverted Brady Bunch world in a NoHo loft with their father, Peter, his second wife, Janis, and her two sons, Justin and Nick. Desperate for continuity in her fracturing universe, Annie clings to the families’ one tradition, an annual no-holds-barred game of capture the flag. But as the kids grow up and the grown-ups pull apart, even Annie’s desperate enthusiasm can’t keep the tradition alive.
There are moments in Capture the Flag when the characters connect and the dialogue is alive with longing and hope, and the reader is transported to a magical, tragic, and real world of kids learning to cope in a culture of privileges but few rules. Often, though, the automatic narration and narrow focus that contribute to the book’s refreshing style also proves its chief shortcoming. Chace’s prose gets lost in the play-by-play of adolescent observation, bogging down in technical details that feel like stage directions: “Annie and Liz looked at each other, then Janis sighed dramatically and passed the still sleeping Sam over to the woman with the man’s haircut. Janis put out her cigarette and walked slowly over to the lawn, the three girls following behind.” The result is a book that can feel like the treatment for a film rather than a richly developed novel— a book in which it sometimes seems that Chace, like her characters, has much to express but has not yet mastered the vocabulary to articulate it.