Darkness clouds suburban teenage memories

By Brad Heffern

In the author’s note at the beginning of Lake Effect, Rich Cohen writes, “I was…after the spirit of a certain season and the thrill of a certain kind of friendship and what happens to such friendships when the afternoon runs into the evening.” The type he is referring to is that most fleeting of friendships; the ones that are so intense and powerful they cannot possibly keep their fervor. Cohen is the narrator of Lake Effect, which takes place in suburban Chicago in the ’80s. The book serves as a memoir of Cohen’s youth and a chronicle of his friendship with Jamie Drew. Called Drew-licious by everyone, including his teachers, Jamie was “that guy” in high school who was cooler than everyone and that everyone wanted to be. But the qualities that attracted people to him are the same qualities that prevented him from succeeding (in a classical sense) after his youth.

Much of the book is a pure slice of Americana-jumping off docks into Lake Michigan, root beer floats, and hamburgers at a stand called Sloppy Ed’s. However, in the tradition of The Great Gatsby, this freedom and happiness contains an underlying darkness. The book chronicles rampant drug use. There are week-long binges when Cohen is too drunk or high to narrate anything properly. Jamie’s father left his mother for another woman, so Jamie pretends his father is dead though he simultaneously yearns for his father’s acceptance. Sloppy Ed loses his hamburger stand to his ex-wife; the burgers are never good again, and Ed eventually burns it down. Moments of great beauty-and there are many in this book-never come without moments of great darkness.

Cohen does a terrific job describing friendship and its dynamics. For long periods, Jamie and Rich are separated-carried off by the divergent courses of their lives. However, one always knows that they will reunite, and probably at the most unexpected time. Similarly, both Rich and Jamie sacrifice their friendship for other people that seem more important. Jamie is a womanizer-he constantly has girls swarming around him, but when Rich finds a girlfriend, this drives Jamie away. Naturally Rich does not care until the girl is gone and then he regrets the missed time with Jamie. Jamie often steps out of his friendship with Rich to pursue greater things; he cannot be contained by his surroundings, at least not in suburban Chicago. So he leaves on treks-to see the ocean or Mardi Gras-though his friendship suffers as a result.

Of course, Jamie is not Rich’s only friend. There is the standard group of five. Tom Pistone who drives a Pontiac GTO, Ronnie Flowers who becomes a used car salesman, Tyler White who watches construction sites for no apparent reason, and of course, Jamie and Rich. But they fall by the wayside, moving on to uninteresting things, and though Rich sees them all again, the group dynamic is lost.

One of the main strengths of Lake Effect is that it gives the reader an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for things that never happened to him or her. While I was still reading the book, I found myself speaking to a friend at lunch, starting with “Yesterday, me and Jamie…”At that moment, I realized that I was about to tell a story from Lake Effect, without even realizing that I didn’t have a part in that story. But that is how Lake Effect affects the reader. Despite all the pain and hardship, one wishes that he could be a part of the story.

A dominant theme of Lake Effect is the fleeting nature of our teenage years. The book is short, and it needs to be. When one looks back on adolescence, the things that are remembered are the mundane and the extraordinary-and really nothing else. Rich remembers a rollicking trip to the South Side to visit a club, and the daily trips to Sloppy Ed’s after school. The brevity is an asset; a memoir of youth should be brief to be realistic. After Rich graduates from college and sees his old friends, he wonders if they are the same people he knew in his youth. They have been whittled down by society and the demands of adulthood; they have lost the fire of youth, just as he’s lost the heat of an intense friendship. Neither could last.