Thou Worm Jacob
The Carpenter Years
Three of these novels deal with a sizable part of American Jewish life in the twentieth century. Mr. Mirsky writes about a declining community in urban Boston; Mr. Gold in his “novel in the form of a memoir” tells the life story of Sam Gold, who came from czarist Russia as a penniless boy, rose to be a rich businessman in Cleveland, and at the age of eighty is still making money and grabbing at life with both hands; Mr. Cohen covers a few crucial days in the life of Edgar Morrison, born Morris Edelman, a New York Jew who has changed his name and passed for a Gentile, directing the YMCA in a small Pennsylvania town.
The first two books have much in common, being concerned essentially with immigrant experience: one pole rooted in the pogrom-ridden life of Holy Russia in the last century, the other in the conspicuous successes and failures of modern America. Both of them offer such a dense texture of idioms and feelings that the goy reviewer, at a loss with so much richness of emotion, so many heavily charged tags of Yiddish and Hebrew, feels like a reluctant guest who is being crammed with good food by an archetypal Yiddishe mamma: “You want my guests should go away hungry? Eat, eat!” Mr. Mirsky and Mr. Gold have such big hearts, which are so obviously in the right place, that it’s a great temptation to lie back, relax, and let them get away with everything.
Mr. Mirsky writes very well, which is not to say that I like the way he writes. Some sophisticated readers may assume that he’s really parodying a familiar genre, where the joys and miseries of the humble Jewish poor are treated with a deliberate lightness of touch, an arch and elaborate whimsicality. There is, certainly, a nice touch of satire on page two, where the narrator, a bookbinder, describes some of the books he has to restore. Their titles, in fact, reflect the solemn debate about Jewish identity and destiny that provides the theme of Arthur Cohen’s novel:
What I bind for the Jews, my father wouldn’t have used for his outhouse. I am ashamed to look between the covers. What’s Jewish about Being Jewish? by Professor Hyman Rosenberg; The Disintegration of Jewish Suburbia by Endelbaum the Episcopalian; Let’s Give Up! by Rabbi Harold Himmelfarb; Don’t Kick a Dead Dog—Mendele Weepe.
Such large questions, Mr. Mirsky makes it clear, are not for him:
Why? Why not? Why not let our community go to pot. Why be Jewish? You think I’m going to answer you? Well…I’ll answer you. Like they answer the ignorant son, I’ll answer you. I’ll tell you a story.
And he does. This persistent hectoring of the reader, grabbing him by the lapel, poking him in the ribs, breathing in his face, is a strong feature of Mirsky’s style. I found it little short of repellent.
I don’t think that he is a parodist, familiar though this kind of writing has become in the work of countless Jewish humorists. It is probably truer to say that the underlying impulse is pastoral, an attempt to recapture a vanished purity and simplicity in a faux-naif rendering of ghetto life, where the familiar words and phrases set up their own special reverberations: “The Cantor and the Moyhel regarded the blue and white box of Tsedokoh. Was it permissible to intercept funds collected for the yeshiva students of Bnai Bruk?” Mr. Mirsky allows himself some moments of naked fantasy, as when a horse and cart belonging to a character called Druckman the Dreckman sails high in the air over Boston and causes a spectacular traffic pile-up. A comparison with Chagall may offer itself, and will doubtless be picked up by favorable reviewers. It may, indeed, say something relevant about Mr. Mirsky’s art, but I prefer Henry James’s remark about the puppet show: “What a great economy of means…but then what an economy of ends.”
MUCH OF MR. GOLD’S BOOK is on the same wave length, and is written in the same collusive idiom, where the reader’s assent is eagerly solicited for every judgment on life that the author cares to make. And how could it be otherwise, when one is writing a fictional biography of one’s own father, a remarkable man whom one properly loves and admires? Yet the reader may feel inclined to love Sam Gold only in the sense that he loves all God’s creatures, and to admire him to whatever extent any self-made tycoon is admirable. Mr. Gold has, in short, involved himself in all kinds of difficulties in what he calls his attempt “to make a particular bridge between history and the shaping imagination”—though he coyly adds, “Like the name ‘Gold,’ which is an imaginary name, this is an imaginary history. And real. And twice imaginary.” And three times real, and four times imaginary, no doubt, and so on and on. This kind of thing comes too easily to Mr. Gold, who is too persistently ingratiating; for him, as for the young Wittgenstein, the world is everything that is the case, and, as for God the Father after the Creation, all of it is good. With Mr. Gold’s fictional world there can be no finicky discriminations: we go through good times and bad with a brave wonderful family, with a huge supporting cast of uncles, aunts, cousins, school friends, business associates, racketeers. The excitement and the good-heartedness are infectious, without doubt, and there’s no denying that Mr. Gold’s writing is crisper than it used to be; his book is mercifully free of the gooeyness that characterized his earlier novels.
Still, one has to resist Mr. Gold’s eager message that experience, slice it how you like, is just wonderful, though one can see how he came by it. As a novelist he combines the Whitman-style hipster and the Jewish immigrant, as is evident from the opening paragraph of Fathers:
In the spring of 1966 my father and mother came to visit me in San Francisco. He was eighty years old and thought he ought to see Hawaii too, why not? While he was out there on the West Coast. Otherwise there is one thing and another. Things come up. He had this deal in Cleveland which could keep him pretty busy for the next few years. They had planned to stay in a hotel, but the idea for an adventure occurred to them as they floated through the thin air between outer space and America.
In his early novel, The Man Who Was Not With It, the hipster mode predominated, whereas the new novel is fixed in the denser realities of Jewish family life, and has a correspondingly greater solidity. One of its strengths is that the imaginary history does, in places, touch upon real history: the fairly snug world of the Jews of Cleveland is shown to have some connection with the fate of the Jews of Europe. In 1946 the Golds bring a distant relative over from Europe, a survivor from Auschwitz, where all his family had perished. By degrees, his health is restored, and the Cleveland Jews discuss what should be done about him:
“He’s had a hard time. Those camps were no picnic,” said my mother.
“They weren’t summer camp, they were all year long,” my aunt agreed, musing. “That’s no excuse he should suffer all by himself the rest of his life.”
They agree that a wife should be found for him, and a female refugee from Auschwitz living in the neighborhood seems a wholly suitable candidate. A meeting between the two refugees is carefully arranged; when the man sees the woman, he trembles, spits in her face, and walks out. His relatives learn that she has been a Kapo, a collaborationist with the Germans. It is at such moments that Mr. Gold’s sunny Whitmanesque assurance is undermined, though he doesn’t allow himself many such moments.
MR. COHEN is a more serious writer than either Mirsky or Gold. He does not move in an easy centripetal movement around the well-loved idols of the Jewish familial and cultural world, but turns outward to an alien order, raising the fundamental question of what it means to be a Jew in twentieth-century America, and how far a Jew can abandon his identity. But to say this is not to say that he is a better novelist than Mirsky or Gold: far from it. Whereas they, for all their irritating mannerisms of style, are capable of writing with real grace and distinction, Mr. Cohen pushes along a wooden melodramatic plot in the flat, gray no-style of standard commercial fiction. His seriousness exists only on the level of intention, not of imaginative enactment.
After these Jewish novels, Paula Fox’s Poor George seems ordinary WASP; it is, however, the best first novel I’ve read in quite a long time. The difficulty is in describing it in any way that will not make it seem like lots of other novels. “George Mecklin, an unpretentious man, teaches in a private school in Manhattan and lives in Westchester with his wife.” So begins the blurb, and the prospective reader could be forgiven for thinking that he’s already read about George—whose marriage, inevitably, is not doing too well—in some other novel by John Updike, for instance. Nevertheless, he should read on. Miss Fox tells a moving story, and tells it in her own way, which is indebted to nobody: George, a perennial innocent, who finds teaching less satisfying than he once did, cultivates a semi-delinquent high school dropout. In trying to help the boy, George pushes his marriage even further on to the rocks, and falls foul of the neighbors—violently so in the end. And he does no good at all to the boy. It is a bleak story, and a merciless uncovering of the exurban wastelands of the spirit, where, as George’s wife remarks at one point: “Neatness is all. We live on the edge of disaster and imagine we are in a kitchen.”
Miss Fox is, perhaps, a little too cold about George, though she stops short of the near-sadistic attitude that so many contemporary novelists display toward their characters. The most important thing about him, however, is that he is real, and so are the other characters who surround him: his wife, Emma; his neighbor, Joe Palladino, a skirt-chasing TV actor who has an affair with George’s sister; Joe’s alcoholic wife, Martha; Walling, an eccentric schoolteacher colleague of George’s. Yet Miss Fox is wholly successful in transmuting this somewhat gross material. She writes with great accuracy and control in a prose whose symbolism is always unobtrusive. Whether Miss Fox will bring off this kind of success a second time remains to be seen; but she has, certainly, the required gifts.