Book review

Almost memoirlike in its portrait of its specific time and place, “What Sammy Knew” — the first work of fiction by Seattle writer David Laskin (“The Children’s Blizzard”) — is both a coming-of-age novel and an examination of how young people plunge into the historical moment in which they happen to find themselves.

The time is early 1970. The place is New York City and its suburbs. And the animating force behind both time and place is intense racial, political and generational conflict.

Seventeen-year-old Sam Stein is painfully self-conscious about his looks and his lack of experience — especially sexual experience. He’s feeling trapped in Great Neck, Long Island (snarkily dubbed “Fat Neck” by him and his friends). He’s also powerfully drawn by “the City.” (“[N]o need to specify — if you lived in the suburbs of New York,” Laskin writes, “there was only one.”)

A hardworking student and an aspiring author who writes for his high school newspaper, Sam isn’t someone you’d peg as a rebel in the making. But two things trigger him. When his parents decide that their live-in maid Tutu, who raised Sammy as much as either of them did, should retire due to her failing health, both Sam and Tutu — who can’t afford to stop working — are stunned.

“Tutu wasn’t an employee,” Sam thinks, “she was the boss. She was the one who gave the orders, laid down the law, enforced the rules. She was tough.”

The second seismic event in Sam’s life is that he gains a leftist-activist girlfriend, Kim. “Nothing turned Kim on,” he observes, “like political debate.” He’s wild about her, nonetheless.

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Her take on their affair is less encouraging. “You think you love me,” she says, “but it’s just the sex. Wait till you do it with someone else.”

When Sam invites Kim to a family dinner, an argument erupts that ends with Sam leaving home in a furious huff to shack up with Kim in a Lower East Side tenement. There, Kim embraces a radicalism that will culminate in an incident that made real-life newspaper headlines in March 1970.

Sam, meanwhile, cooks up a scheme to protect Tutu’s job. As long as his parents keep her employed, Sam will stay in touch with them via Tutu. If they fire her, they’ll never hear from him again.

Laskin vividly captures Sam’s self-righteous, manipulative indignation with his family, while making it clear he has no idea of the impossible position he’s putting Tutu in. Tutu holds her own, though, especially in one deliciously barbed exchange with the crusading Kim. “I don’t need a lecture,” she tells Sam’s girlfriend. “My conscience is raised as high as I want it.”

Laskin’s prose can feel strained in the early parts of the novel. But as the conflicts and complications intensify, the writing gets more streamlined. Throughout the book, there are passages that hit the nail exactly on the head. Laskin’s description of the social status of Sammy’s second-generation Russian Jewish parents is wickedly precise: “Their privilege was so new and shallow it threatened to come off in the rain like a bad dye job.”

The novel boasts lively ancillary characters, including Sam’s Lower East Side apartment mate Richard, a bisexual adventurer who has fallen in with the Warhol crowd, and Tutu’s grandson Leon, a churchgoing kid with a terrific voice who dreams of securing a record contract.

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Sam is clearly an alter ego for Laskin — he’s the same age, with same family background — and the passages evoking his pleasure at being let loose in the dingy Manhattan of 1970 are marvelous.

“He was intoxicated and flattened,” Laskin writes. “He wanted to rush down every street, sample every cookie in every bakery, eavesdrop on every conversation even if he had no idea what language they were speaking, stalk random beautiful strangers on their mysterious rounds to clubs and cafés and dark little closet bars and bedrooms humid with flowers and rumpled sheets.”

The period detail is mostly flawless. (One anachronism: No one would be looking for David Bowie in early 1970, since Bowie didn’t make it to New York until 1971.)

The reverse mirror the novel holds up to our own troubled times is startling. Laskin can’t have planned this, but Kim’s reckless actions and her talk of a “Second American Revolution” uncannily echo the rhetoric of the marauders who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Richard’s cynical take on the political tumult of the day offers a languid contrast to Kim’s fervor: “Protest was a waste of time. Hippies were history. Ideals were illusion. War would never end. Nothing was going to change for the better. Why knock yourself out?”

It’s Sam, however, who, after all his acting out, provides the novel with its moral center.

David Laskin, Penguin, 274 pp., $26

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