Home Fires, by Donald Katz
Sam, Eve & the Kids
by Donald Katz.
HarperCollins. 619 pp. $25.00.
Home Fires is the true-life history of the Gordon family: the parents, Sam and Eve; their multitalented offspring, Susan, Lorraine, Sheila, and Ricky; and their offspring’s offspring, Magdalena, Shuna, Shiva, Ram, Gopal, and others. Their biographer, Donald Katz, is a journalist whose work has appeared regularly in Esquire.
Katz undertook to write Home Fires in the late 1980′s, after several years of jogging in New York’s Riverside Park with Ricky Gordon, an award-winning composer, the youngest child and only son of Sam and Eve. During those morning runs Ricky regaled Katz with family anecdotes, and Katz, in turn, came to see these stories “as vivid annotations on a historical time line and as parts of a grand family saga of the sort usually found in novels.” He wanted to put them together, he says, so that “readers might learn something about themselves and their own lives over the decades.” To this larger end, Katz became a consummate scholar not only of the Gordon family but also of the American Family in general, as well as of most of the popular ologies devoted to it, including anthro-, socio-, and psycho-; the findings of these various “sciences” pepper his year-by-year account of the Gordons.
The book begins in 1945 as Sam, a veteran of the war in Europe, all alive and hopeful about the future, returns to the Bronx and to Eve and two-year-old Susan, whom he has never seen. It ends 45 years later, as Sam and Eve sit in peaceful retirement in Florida. In between, this middle-class Jewish couple and their brood are afflicted by, and inflict upon themselves, one calamity after another, including abuse, neglect, drug addiction, yogi-worship, even jail, enduring twice 45 years’ worth of tribulation.
Sam and Eve are rather dazzling types. Sam is a brilliant if uneducated man who applies his photographic memory, his uncanny engineering abilities, his “gift for electric,” to most of life’s enterprises. Eve, with a youthful vaudeville career behind her, brings singing and humor, liveliness and sexiness, into the family sphere. As a couple they are and they remain in love, he perhaps a little more than she, they are very jazzy, and they like to dance.
They have chucked their last name, replacing Goldenberg with the less obviously Jewish Gordon. On his way up the economic ladder Sam eschews the union-bound slavishness of his immigrant father to go into the electrical business for himself, and the couple soon leaves the Bronx behind for a brand new split-level on Long Island. Sam, with his own hands, turns their house into a landmark of beauty and clever engineering in a neighborhood of uniformity.
With her rather daring background, Eve pines for the vanguard, for freedom from the constraints of conventionality. She chooses Hollywood names for her children: Susan is named for Susan Hayward, Lorraine for Laraine Day, Ricky for the character played by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca .She is the life of the party, enchanting her children with songs and stories, endlessly amusing and amused, an Elizabeth Tayloresque beauty, the envy of all neighboring husbands, and even, occasionally, of her own daughters. Yet she somehow also feels disconnected, as if she does not “fit in.” She reacts to moments of emotional upheaval peculiarly: scrubbing and rescrubbing her already pristine surroundings; smashing dishes against walls; ironing clothes through the night and into the morning; serving piles upon piles of food, in an orgy of mounting tension, at a dinner table more often resembling a battleground than a familial gathering place.
Indeed, when it comes to their children, these thoroughly modern people reveal themselves as thoroughly crippled. Sam’s own early experience of material and emotional privation, facts of life for any number of Jews of his generation, has left its scars, and in particular has left him unable to bend to precocious and difficult children whose demands dumbfound and anger him. Fiercely proud, he clings to a belief in the way things “should” be in a happy, up-to-date family. He wants only to be loved by his children, as he thinks a modern father is supposed to be loved: because he is there. But for a man who is unwilling to give what childish love wants in return, namely, the safe haven of asserted authority, getting that kind of love turns out to be impossible. At every clamor for help Sam shrugs his shoulders in bafflement and disgust, at each escalation he throws up his hands and walks away.
With regard to the children Eve is altogether more supple than Sam, more overtly loving. She talks a good game, about the guilt she “has,” as though it were the flu. But where her real responsibility lies she, too, trips over it, “reluctant to rein in kids who were so smart and creative.” Between the two of them, where parental action is begged for there is only reaction, or worse yet, inaction. Thus, Sam, seeing what he takes to be hatred in the eyes of his infant daughter Susan when she meets him for the first time at the age of two, tells himself that it is not his place to make the first move. She will have to learn to accept him, and she will have to figure it out on her own. And thus Eve, watching Susan, now grown and a junkie, take a nosedive into a plate of sweet potatoes one Thanksgiving, comments: “She’s been very tired. She’s very, very tired.”
Of all the children, Susan’s tale is certainly the most harrowing. After winning awards in high school and a scholarship to Vassar, where, as an aspiring writer, she flirts with the black revolution, Susan marries a rising-star Newsweek journalist, Michael Lydon. The two of them move to London where they live high on the hog and join the British rock revolution, and then they return to the U.S., to San Francisco, where they live high on the hog and join the radical revolution. The radical revolution sends Susan straight into the embrace of the women’s revolution. She launches what will prove to be a fairly successful writing career with an article in the radical Left magazine Ramparts entitled “The Politics of Orgasm.”
She and Michael have a child, whom they name Shuna. Michael joins the hippie revolution, where he turns on, tunes in, and drops out in an effort to be the sort of person a daughter can be proud of; Susan supports them. Their marriage breaks up and Susan, living a little less high on the hog, joins the drug revolution, gazing dreamily at her daughter’s antics through the haze of LSD. She gets a new beau, a rock drummer, and the two of them join the spiritual revolution, finding in the Arica Institute an intellectualizing branch of spirituality that does not rule out drug use: their weekdays are spent standing on their heads in naked meditation, their weekend recreation is snorting heroin. When this quasi-marriage also breaks up, Susan and Shuna return to New York under the patronage of Arica, which has money to burn.
But it is drugs, not men and not spirituality, that Susan really loves, and for the next decade or so she remains their faithful mistress. By 1983, in her fortieth year, she is
doing two full “bundles”—some twenty bags of quality heroin—every day. Her habit cost over three thousand dollars a week and represented a pharmaceutical intake that would have killed two average junkies twice her size. She’d spent much of the past cold winter wandering . . . Manhattan with plastic garbage bags lining her boots, huddling around fires in oil drums to exchange reconnaissance updates on the whereabouts of “the man.”
She flings herself into the downward spiral, from heroin to cocaine and eventually to crack, and drags her daughter with her. When Shuna is not being taken along on outings related to the buying or selling of drugs, she spends her time fending for herself. At the age of eleven she is doing the household laundry and shopping, feeding herself dinners of raw cabbage and vinegar, and cleaning up after her filthy, hollow-eyed, rank-smelling mother. She wonders why no one seems to notice what is happening. At one point she watches her grandmother Eve come upon Susan snorting a mountain of heroin and walk away as if she has not seen what she has seen. She wonders why her grandmother keeps giving her mother money, as if ignorant of what it will be used for. She wonders why no one will rescue her.
In one of this narrative’s most poignant passages, Shuna, now a teenager, is lodged temporarily, and not for the first time, apart from her mother. “On most of those . . . mornings,” Katz writes, “Shuna awoke surprised that the night had passed without news of her mother’s death. But then she remembered that she was the one who was dead.”
Susan ultimately gets clean of drugs, but not before she has put in some time as a whore to feed her habit, and not before she has done some time in jail.
Meanwhile her younger siblings keep pace. Lorraine boils with rage against the suffocation of Jewish suburbia. She seeks solace and “cool” in the company of sequin-clad, knife-wielding boys from a neighboring town, and in the coffee houses purveying folk music and rebellion to other, equally blackhearted, children in Greenwich Village. She finds refuge, momentarily, in the arms of one Bobby Shapiro. Pregnant at seventeen, she marries Bobby and moves with him to the Lower East Side, site of her father Sam’s youth, there to embrace with her every grim fiber the poverty he once struggled to escape.
Lorraine and Bobby present Sam and Eve with their first grandchild, Magdalena. When the marriage breaks up, she embarks on others, putting on and casting off husbands like a runway model donning and shedding clothes. She dabbles in Oriental culture, overdoses on drugs, undergoes psychotherapy of various stripes, hangs out with Allen Ginsberg. Debilitating disorders assail her: agoraphobia, claustrophobia, cancer, asthma, skin eruptions. Lorraine Gordon Shapiro Hughes Wenzel (Behny—if you count the one she lives with out of wedlock) Heard produces three more children, Ram, Shiva, and Gopal. And when, like her sister before her, she falls upon a true passion, it abides with her for a decade and a half: a bill of spiritual-enlightenment goods sold to her by Yogiraj Sri Swami Satchidananda, the “swami to the stars.” Her devotion to his Integral Yoga carries her to his ashram at Yogaville, Va.; it keeps her scrabbling for the money to put macrobiotics on the table while Satchidananda and his pals live like kings and queens; it outlasts a few husbands; it weathers the dismay of her family, taking its fatal blow only when she is widowed from her final husband, a yogi healer who dies of a heart attack. “Just cry for a few minutes,” Dr. Swami Feelgood tells her, “and then get up and go do something.” This she finally does, chucking ashram life to become a healer herself.
Sheila and Ricky have troubles of their own, and plenty of them. Sheila, however, though she is drawn to many of the same fires that burn her sisters, does not immolate herself in them. The least outrageous of the children, and the quietest one—“my easy child,” Sam calls her—she enters the counterculture, experiences its degradation, but manages to remain relatively whole. She does not need to rebuild herself from scratch when she emerges. If her parents (and the author) have given her short shrift, that is perhaps all to the good. In the end she is the only Gordon child who succeeds in fulfilling the natural expectations of her class: she marries well, lives a life of luxury and ease, has normal, happy relations with normal, happy children. If there is sometimes open condescension, occasionally even derision, in her siblings’ attitude toward her, there is no doubt also a fair measure of unspoken envy.
For his part, Ricky experiences childhood as a series of traumatizing events, culminating in the relieving moment of self-discovery when he figures out that his sensitivities, his longings, have all along been homosexual in nature. While his parents are dancing to the music of Tito Puente, his sisters swaying to gospel and rock, he is passionately devouring opera, and setting his own florid poetry to music. And while his remote father is blindly harboring the manliest of hopes for his youngest child and only son, Ricky is locked in the bathroom, putting on his mother’s makeup.
For all their ailments and their failings, the Gordons are an extremely compelling family: the mingling of Sam and Eve’s genes produced children of manifold talents, among them the gifts of intelligence, music, writing, painting, general cleverness. And Donald Katz, though his social commentary occasionally makes too jarring a counterpoint to the family drama, in general tells their history in a compelling manner. In becoming the Gordons’ biographer he has also become their friend and champion, and he draws the reader skillfully into their lives, unfolding their characters with the patient, loving eye of a novelist.
Still, he falls short with respect to the central, the critical, question: what went awry here? How did all this fertile soil become so fallow? How did these wonderfully-endowed children become living embodiments, each in his or her own fashion, of that whole catalogue of illnesses that made its way into American households in the early 1960′s? For Katz there is no one answer. It just happened, history made it happen, the times made it happen, sociology made it happen, psychology made it happen.
For the Gordons, at least, this must be an appealing litany: they are people who go to serious lengths to avoid the truth, even when they believe they are seeking it. But as for Katz’s readers, to whom he has held out the promise of learning “something about themselves and their own lives over the decades,” they are left to winnow out the true lesson of this book on their own. Nowhere in it will they find this simple truth articulated, that, in the name of being modern, a generation of mommies and daddies of a certain class bowed out, and a generation of children suffered the consequences.