Blame it on the malign influence of sociology, Freudian psychology, or TV sitcoms, but millions of Americans wonder whether their families are truly ''normal'' or uniquely mad. Don't worry. Short of having a brother doing life without parole, a sister in a devil-worshipping cult, and your mom on Geraldo confessing to an interspecies love affair, there's no way your brood could top the Gordons of Harbor Isle, Long Island, chronicled in Donald Katz's remarkable Home Fires.
Maybe that's too breezy a way to put it, given the seriousness of Katz's approach and the sorrowfulness of so much of what his engrossing narrative reveals about the lives of Sam and Eve Gordon and their four gifted but troubled children during the roller coaster years since 1945. Yet a certain giddiness a sort of cultural vertigo can't help but affect readers of this unusual book. Combining a reporter's skills with an intimacy rarely found in nonfiction, Katz makes current chatter about ''family values'' sound like Dick and Jane.
Having befriended Ricky, 36, the youngest Gordon, some years ago, the author found himself intrigued by the talented composer's monologues on his ill-starred family. ''Was it indeed, as Ricky argued, 'the times' that so roiled and even ruined many families of the post-war era?'' Katz asks. ''Or was it genetics...or the 'myth of the 1950s family'; or the luck of the draw, or rock and roll; or, as several Gordons would attest at one point, was it karma?''
Katz offers no easy answers. But whatever it was, things didn't turn out even remotely as Sam Goldenberg hoped when he returned from the Army after World War II ''determined to establish a 'normal' family untouched by...the household discord that had marred his own family.'' By changing the family name to Gordon, establishing a successful business, and moving to the suburbs, Sam and his bride sought to become, in Katz's words ''the very embodiment of the American Dream.''
But things began to go wrong almost from the time their oldest daughter, Susan, born in 1943, learned the word no. By the time she and Lorraine, three years younger, were old enough to go to Alan Freed's rock & roll shows at the Brooklyn Paramount, the family dinner table had become a battleground. ''Costume changes,'' Katz writes of the children, ''commenced at a startling pace: rocker, beat, Ivy Leaguer, radical, hippie, feminist, dealer, unwed mother, divorcee, gay, yogi, healer....By the time I first heard Ricky's stories, his oldest sister, the one with a degree from Vassar, whose articles I'd read in early issues of Rolling Stone and Ms., was a junkie roaming city streets. His second sister was living in poverty and was about to gather up her children, leave her boyfriend, a retired motorcycle outlaw, and return to the fold with her guru in Yogaville, Virginia. His mother, Ricky said, had become 'skittery and sad.' Ricky believed his father had never been able to accept that his only son was gay...(and) rarely spoke to his children at all.''
And so it goes, for page after remarkable page. Only the third daughter, Sheila, turned out remotely as her parents hoped. The Gordons are as voluble a clan of egomaniacs as ever spilled the beans to a journalist; if they kept any intimate secrets to themselves it's hard to guess what they might be. Cleverly framed by Katz's shrewd summaries of cultural and political events, Home Fires is not exactly what you'd call heartwarming. The Vassar junkie, for one, emerges as an insufferable ass and by no means the only drug abuser among her siblings. What's fascinating and scary is that by most standards, Sam and Eve did everything right. Yet everything went wrong. Even so, Katz finds hope that through it all ''they never stopped being family. And the two of them had never stopped being in love.'' A