Commentary Magazine


Topic: American novels

Veterans Day and Veterans’ Novels

The strange career of Veterans Day from its origins after the First World War as a day on which America could (in the words of Woodrow Wilson) “show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations” to a day on which America could (as Ronald Reagan said nearly seven decades later) “pay tribute to all those men and women who throughout our history, have left their homes and loved ones to serve their country” is neatly traced by Leon R. Kass at the Weekly Standard’s blog this morning.

What has always interested me, as a literary critic, is the degree to which American literature is a veterans’ literature. Not merely because so many American writers “left their homes . . . to serve their country,” especially during the Second World War. Even more importantly, because so many who did not serve in uniform made combat veterans their heroes.

Four American novels in particular take on renewed and deepened significance when they are read, correctly, as veterans’ novels — The American (1877) by Henry James, The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henderson the Rain King (1959) by Saul Bellow, and The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy.

James’s hero Christopher Newman is a veteran of the Civil War, a former brigadier-general, whose “four years in the army had left him with an angry, bitter sense of the waste of precious things” and had fired him with a “passionate zest and energy” for the postwar “pursuits of peace.” His military service was the pivotal experience in his life. It leads him first to success in business and then to Europe, where he goes in search of “something else.”

Fitzgerald’s narrator is a veteran of the Great War (“that delayed Teutonic migration”), and so is the title character, an officer and decorated war hero. Jay Gatsby came back, like James’s Newman, with a sense of purpose — a “creative passion,” an “incorruptible dream,” which he nurtured during his years in the army. Although he may have been shady and not entirely law-abiding, Gatsby was like no one else in the whole “rotten crowd” of the postwar boom. Compared to the “careless” rich, who avoided military service and “smashed up things and creatures,” he really was a great man — or at least as great as a man could be in such a lost generation.

Bellow’s hero is a veteran of the Second World War, one of only two soldiers in his unit who survived the Italian campaign, although he was wounded by a land mine and received the Purple Heart. “The whole experience gave my heart a large and real emotion,” Eugene Henderson says. “Which I continually require.” The voice within that ceaselessly chants I want, I want, I want, oh, I want formed its first words when Henderson was in the army. His search, like Newman’s and Gatsby’s, commences upon demobilization.

Walker Percy’s hero and narrator is a veteran of the Korean War, who is also on a search (“what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life”). Binx Bolling’s is an existential search, a religious search, a search for meaning. And the first time the search occurred to him was in 1951. Knocked unconscious in battle, he came to with a “queasy-quince taste” in his mouth, his shoulder pressed into the ground, and the vow that, if he ever got out of this fix, he would relentlessly pursue the search.

None of these novelists served in the military, but when thinking about the kind of experience that would turn a man around — that would even create him anew — they immediately thought of what Kass calls the one percent who guard and protect the 99 percent. Except for the crazed Vietnam vet, the soldier who becomes an adult in the military — who learns the responsibilities of adulthood, defined by the U.S. Army as loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage — has now largely disappeared from American literature. James, Fitzgerald, Bellow, and Percy demonstrate what has been lost.

Today is the day we honor the ordinary heroes who are better than 99 percent of us.

The strange career of Veterans Day from its origins after the First World War as a day on which America could (in the words of Woodrow Wilson) “show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations” to a day on which America could (as Ronald Reagan said nearly seven decades later) “pay tribute to all those men and women who throughout our history, have left their homes and loved ones to serve their country” is neatly traced by Leon R. Kass at the Weekly Standard’s blog this morning.

What has always interested me, as a literary critic, is the degree to which American literature is a veterans’ literature. Not merely because so many American writers “left their homes . . . to serve their country,” especially during the Second World War. Even more importantly, because so many who did not serve in uniform made combat veterans their heroes.

Four American novels in particular take on renewed and deepened significance when they are read, correctly, as veterans’ novels — The American (1877) by Henry James, The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henderson the Rain King (1959) by Saul Bellow, and The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy.

James’s hero Christopher Newman is a veteran of the Civil War, a former brigadier-general, whose “four years in the army had left him with an angry, bitter sense of the waste of precious things” and had fired him with a “passionate zest and energy” for the postwar “pursuits of peace.” His military service was the pivotal experience in his life. It leads him first to success in business and then to Europe, where he goes in search of “something else.”

Fitzgerald’s narrator is a veteran of the Great War (“that delayed Teutonic migration”), and so is the title character, an officer and decorated war hero. Jay Gatsby came back, like James’s Newman, with a sense of purpose — a “creative passion,” an “incorruptible dream,” which he nurtured during his years in the army. Although he may have been shady and not entirely law-abiding, Gatsby was like no one else in the whole “rotten crowd” of the postwar boom. Compared to the “careless” rich, who avoided military service and “smashed up things and creatures,” he really was a great man — or at least as great as a man could be in such a lost generation.

Bellow’s hero is a veteran of the Second World War, one of only two soldiers in his unit who survived the Italian campaign, although he was wounded by a land mine and received the Purple Heart. “The whole experience gave my heart a large and real emotion,” Eugene Henderson says. “Which I continually require.” The voice within that ceaselessly chants I want, I want, I want, oh, I want formed its first words when Henderson was in the army. His search, like Newman’s and Gatsby’s, commences upon demobilization.

Walker Percy’s hero and narrator is a veteran of the Korean War, who is also on a search (“what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life”). Binx Bolling’s is an existential search, a religious search, a search for meaning. And the first time the search occurred to him was in 1951. Knocked unconscious in battle, he came to with a “queasy-quince taste” in his mouth, his shoulder pressed into the ground, and the vow that, if he ever got out of this fix, he would relentlessly pursue the search.

None of these novelists served in the military, but when thinking about the kind of experience that would turn a man around — that would even create him anew — they immediately thought of what Kass calls the one percent who guard and protect the 99 percent. Except for the crazed Vietnam vet, the soldier who becomes an adult in the military — who learns the responsibilities of adulthood, defined by the U.S. Army as loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage — has now largely disappeared from American literature. James, Fitzgerald, Bellow, and Percy demonstrate what has been lost.

Today is the day we honor the ordinary heroes who are better than 99 percent of us.

Read Less

The Decline of the Public Novel

The novel — the public novel, whose release is a public event, the novel which everyone has to read or pretend to — “just doesn’t count for much anymore,” Joseph Bottum wrote in the Weekly Standard last week. It doesn’t pass what he calls the “cocktail-party test.” At a cocktail party, no one is ashamed to admit ignorance when asked for an opinion about this year’s five nominees for the National Book Award. Pretty much the opposite: you’d probably come off as a little strange if you could name three of the five.

Once upon a time the novel was “the device by which, more than any other, we tried to explain ourselves to ourselves,” Bottum says. Not any longer. “Even the hobbyists who read new fiction don’t look to such books for deep explanations of the human condition.” The last big public novel, he says, was Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, 24 years ago.

Well, Jonathan Franzen was on the cover of Time magazine last summer, and President Obama arranged to be “spotted” carrying an advance copy of Franzen’s big new novel Freedom. But Franzen’s real achievement, as Abe Greenwald observed in Contentions, was to pontificate about America’s guilt and inferiority to Europe in the style of a “disenchanted ninth grader,” and if his big public novel reached a mass audience, it was — as someone said somewhere — a “mass audience of self-regarding elitists.”

Bottum is impatient with such criticisms:

The common move at this point (among conservatives, at least) is to blame the writers. The nation’s novelists, you see, were ruined by the writing-workshop aesthetic that came out of the colleges. They were hurt as well by politics: the mainstreaming of left-wing thought, the sidelining of artists who failed to toe the line.

Since he is an old friend — we both got our start writing for the late Denis Dutton’s academic journal Philosophy and Literature — I can’t help but think Bottum is indirectly addressing me in these remarks. After all, I am one of those conservatives who has blamed creative writing for the fading significance of “literary fiction,” and my attack upon OccupyWriters.Com — “Almost a thousand of the best contemporary writers,” I wrote, have eagerly signed up to support “the goals of radical leftist tyranny” — nearly went viral when Salman Rushdie bit back.

Bottum assigns the blame for the novel’s decline elsewhere. Not in aesthetics and not in politics but in metaphysics lies the fault. “If novelists themselves don’t believe there exists a deep structure of morality and manners that can be discerned by the novel, why should readers believe it?” he asks. “Why should they care?”

I’m not certain that Bottum’s alternative is an either/or. Why can’t the explanation for the novel’s decline be both/and? Because they were socialized by a common training in writing workshops to adopt a common set of tastes and attitudes, and because these included a taste for liberal attitudinizing, American novelists lost all interest in morality and manners. Or because they inherited a metaphysical view of the universe as bereft of morality and manners, they were quick to adopt the substitute offered in graduate writing programs.

In any event, Bottum and I agree on one point. When conservatives call for a defense of Western culture, Bottum’s question is the first one to be asked: “What culture do you think we have left to defend?”

The novel — the public novel, whose release is a public event, the novel which everyone has to read or pretend to — “just doesn’t count for much anymore,” Joseph Bottum wrote in the Weekly Standard last week. It doesn’t pass what he calls the “cocktail-party test.” At a cocktail party, no one is ashamed to admit ignorance when asked for an opinion about this year’s five nominees for the National Book Award. Pretty much the opposite: you’d probably come off as a little strange if you could name three of the five.

Once upon a time the novel was “the device by which, more than any other, we tried to explain ourselves to ourselves,” Bottum says. Not any longer. “Even the hobbyists who read new fiction don’t look to such books for deep explanations of the human condition.” The last big public novel, he says, was Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, 24 years ago.

Well, Jonathan Franzen was on the cover of Time magazine last summer, and President Obama arranged to be “spotted” carrying an advance copy of Franzen’s big new novel Freedom. But Franzen’s real achievement, as Abe Greenwald observed in Contentions, was to pontificate about America’s guilt and inferiority to Europe in the style of a “disenchanted ninth grader,” and if his big public novel reached a mass audience, it was — as someone said somewhere — a “mass audience of self-regarding elitists.”

Bottum is impatient with such criticisms:

The common move at this point (among conservatives, at least) is to blame the writers. The nation’s novelists, you see, were ruined by the writing-workshop aesthetic that came out of the colleges. They were hurt as well by politics: the mainstreaming of left-wing thought, the sidelining of artists who failed to toe the line.

Since he is an old friend — we both got our start writing for the late Denis Dutton’s academic journal Philosophy and Literature — I can’t help but think Bottum is indirectly addressing me in these remarks. After all, I am one of those conservatives who has blamed creative writing for the fading significance of “literary fiction,” and my attack upon OccupyWriters.Com — “Almost a thousand of the best contemporary writers,” I wrote, have eagerly signed up to support “the goals of radical leftist tyranny” — nearly went viral when Salman Rushdie bit back.

Bottum assigns the blame for the novel’s decline elsewhere. Not in aesthetics and not in politics but in metaphysics lies the fault. “If novelists themselves don’t believe there exists a deep structure of morality and manners that can be discerned by the novel, why should readers believe it?” he asks. “Why should they care?”

I’m not certain that Bottum’s alternative is an either/or. Why can’t the explanation for the novel’s decline be both/and? Because they were socialized by a common training in writing workshops to adopt a common set of tastes and attitudes, and because these included a taste for liberal attitudinizing, American novelists lost all interest in morality and manners. Or because they inherited a metaphysical view of the universe as bereft of morality and manners, they were quick to adopt the substitute offered in graduate writing programs.

In any event, Bottum and I agree on one point. When conservatives call for a defense of Western culture, Bottum’s question is the first one to be asked: “What culture do you think we have left to defend?”

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Do American Novelists Even Deserve the Nobel Prize?

On Monday, three days before Tomas Tranströmer was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature (“because . . . he gives us fresh access to reality”), Alexander Nazaryan predicted in Salon that there would be “the usual entitled whining” if an American didn’t win. I haven’t come across any, but at least one of my readers overheard some such whining in my reaction to Tranströmer’s favorite-son award.

It’s no secret that I believe Philip Roth is far and away the greatest living novelist. He represents what I have taken to calling, in a phrase freely plagiarized from John Erskine, the moral obligation to write well. And despite my reservations about literary prizes, which are (to repeat myself) little more than publicity stunts to sell more books, it follows that I would like to see Roth win the Nobel Prize, I suppose.

I pray daily to God to keep me from whining if he doesn’t. Nabokov never did, after all, despite annual predictions that this year at last would be his turn! Among American novelists aged 65 and older — the mean age of a Nobel winner is 66.73 — only Cormac McCarthy is in Roth’s league as a Nobel hopeful. Last year, when he took over as the oddsmakers’ favorite, I suggested that McCarthy would make a good winner, at least in the terms of Alfred Nobel’s original bequest, which specified that a writer of “idealistic tendency [idealisk rigtning]” be honored.

Joyce Carol Oates is admired by critics I respect and despised by critics I respect, and though I am in the latter camp, the more important point is that she does not have a reputation as a major novelist. She has written about a hundred minor novels. (Okay, only 39 plus collections of stories and poems and essays and she’ll probably finish a novella or two before you finish reading this sentence.) Nobody ever seems to mention Cynthia Ozick, although she is a far more significant novelist than Oates with a far broader range, in many fewer books. Marilynne Robinson, who will be 68 next month, is America’s other great novelist, but her problem is the opposite of Oates’s — only three novels in 31 years so far.

American novelists, according to Nazaryan, have only themselves to blame for not winning a Nobel since 1993. And he knows exactly what American literature needs:

America needs an Obama des letters [sic], a writer for the 21st century, not the 20th — or even the 19th. One who is not stuck in the Cold War or the gun-slinging West or the bygone Jewish precincts of Newark — or mired in the claustrophobia of familial dramas. What relevance does our solipsism have to a reader in Bombay? For that matter, what relevance does it have in Brooklyn, N.Y.?

Nazaryan obviously belongs to that corner of the intelligentsia (more like three corners of it, plus a lot of chairs dragged over from the fourth) which still believes, against all evidence, that Obama is “what the historical moment seems to be calling for.”

What the historical moment in literature is calling for is anybody’s guess. There is no such thing as prospective criticism. Nazaryan, however, knows just what it is. He believes the Swedish Academy has been trying to tell American novelists what they lack and what they need. In a word (Nazaryan’s word), they need to be universal. (The italics are his too.) Hence his dig at Roth’s Newark. It is “solipsistic,” you see, to know one place inside out. Far better to be able to congratulate oneself on knowing a little something about all the capitals of Europe. Such knowledge will obviously have “relevance . . . to a reader in Bombay.” I do wonder, though, if Nazaryan believes that a novelist of Bombay like, say, Amit Chaudhuri has relevance for readers in Newark.

The truth is that the demand for universalism in literature is a demand for its extinction. Universalism emphasizes what all human beings have in common, but what all human beings have in common is their biology, and (to paraphrase Ozick) if a human being is no more than his limbs and organs, then what matter that the body is burned and scattered or dismembered and fed to pigs? Good fiction explores how the world looks to someone who is different from me, and the possibility that the world is different from the way I understand it is a real and positive gain in knowledge: the very opposite of solipsism.

By and large, the Swedish Academy awards the Nobel Prize in literature to second-rate writers with agreeable politics. Occasionally a mistake is made and a first-rate writer like Mario Vargas Llosa, J. M. Coetzee, V. S. Naipaul, or Seamus Heaney slips through. No American writer is likely to be awarded the Nobel any time soon, however, unless — like Toni Morrison, the country’s last winner, and just like an Obama des lettres, come to think of it — she can flatter the Swedish Academy’s self-image in selecting her. And who knows? The right sounds of an ideological universalism, which is to say a self-hating anti-Americanism, might just do the trick.

On Monday, three days before Tomas Tranströmer was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature (“because . . . he gives us fresh access to reality”), Alexander Nazaryan predicted in Salon that there would be “the usual entitled whining” if an American didn’t win. I haven’t come across any, but at least one of my readers overheard some such whining in my reaction to Tranströmer’s favorite-son award.

It’s no secret that I believe Philip Roth is far and away the greatest living novelist. He represents what I have taken to calling, in a phrase freely plagiarized from John Erskine, the moral obligation to write well. And despite my reservations about literary prizes, which are (to repeat myself) little more than publicity stunts to sell more books, it follows that I would like to see Roth win the Nobel Prize, I suppose.

I pray daily to God to keep me from whining if he doesn’t. Nabokov never did, after all, despite annual predictions that this year at last would be his turn! Among American novelists aged 65 and older — the mean age of a Nobel winner is 66.73 — only Cormac McCarthy is in Roth’s league as a Nobel hopeful. Last year, when he took over as the oddsmakers’ favorite, I suggested that McCarthy would make a good winner, at least in the terms of Alfred Nobel’s original bequest, which specified that a writer of “idealistic tendency [idealisk rigtning]” be honored.

Joyce Carol Oates is admired by critics I respect and despised by critics I respect, and though I am in the latter camp, the more important point is that she does not have a reputation as a major novelist. She has written about a hundred minor novels. (Okay, only 39 plus collections of stories and poems and essays and she’ll probably finish a novella or two before you finish reading this sentence.) Nobody ever seems to mention Cynthia Ozick, although she is a far more significant novelist than Oates with a far broader range, in many fewer books. Marilynne Robinson, who will be 68 next month, is America’s other great novelist, but her problem is the opposite of Oates’s — only three novels in 31 years so far.

American novelists, according to Nazaryan, have only themselves to blame for not winning a Nobel since 1993. And he knows exactly what American literature needs:

America needs an Obama des letters [sic], a writer for the 21st century, not the 20th — or even the 19th. One who is not stuck in the Cold War or the gun-slinging West or the bygone Jewish precincts of Newark — or mired in the claustrophobia of familial dramas. What relevance does our solipsism have to a reader in Bombay? For that matter, what relevance does it have in Brooklyn, N.Y.?

Nazaryan obviously belongs to that corner of the intelligentsia (more like three corners of it, plus a lot of chairs dragged over from the fourth) which still believes, against all evidence, that Obama is “what the historical moment seems to be calling for.”

What the historical moment in literature is calling for is anybody’s guess. There is no such thing as prospective criticism. Nazaryan, however, knows just what it is. He believes the Swedish Academy has been trying to tell American novelists what they lack and what they need. In a word (Nazaryan’s word), they need to be universal. (The italics are his too.) Hence his dig at Roth’s Newark. It is “solipsistic,” you see, to know one place inside out. Far better to be able to congratulate oneself on knowing a little something about all the capitals of Europe. Such knowledge will obviously have “relevance . . . to a reader in Bombay.” I do wonder, though, if Nazaryan believes that a novelist of Bombay like, say, Amit Chaudhuri has relevance for readers in Newark.

The truth is that the demand for universalism in literature is a demand for its extinction. Universalism emphasizes what all human beings have in common, but what all human beings have in common is their biology, and (to paraphrase Ozick) if a human being is no more than his limbs and organs, then what matter that the body is burned and scattered or dismembered and fed to pigs? Good fiction explores how the world looks to someone who is different from me, and the possibility that the world is different from the way I understand it is a real and positive gain in knowledge: the very opposite of solipsism.

By and large, the Swedish Academy awards the Nobel Prize in literature to second-rate writers with agreeable politics. Occasionally a mistake is made and a first-rate writer like Mario Vargas Llosa, J. M. Coetzee, V. S. Naipaul, or Seamus Heaney slips through. No American writer is likely to be awarded the Nobel any time soon, however, unless — like Toni Morrison, the country’s last winner, and just like an Obama des lettres, come to think of it — she can flatter the Swedish Academy’s self-image in selecting her. And who knows? The right sounds of an ideological universalism, which is to say a self-hating anti-Americanism, might just do the trick.

Read Less

Roland Merullo

In my inaugural fiction chronicle this month for COMMENTARY, I single out Roland Merullo’s new novel The Talk-Funny Girl for special praise.

Merullo has been one of my favorites for some time. Fidel’s Last Days, his last book, was a political thriller about a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. He is not a political animal; at worst he is a conventional liberal. What is striking about him, though, is that Merullo does not share the literary left’s romantic illusions about Castro. While not an anti-Communist novel, Fidel’s Last Days remorselessly shows that the fear and distrust of ordinary life in Castro’s Cuba is “no way to live.” That’s more than enough to make it unusual.

In 2008 — two books ago — Merullo wrote a satire in which Jesus of Nazareth returns to earth and decides to run for president of the United States. In an interview, Merullo explained that he first began to write about religion because he

felt there was some space . . . between the dogmatists and the atheists. Most of my friends fall into that space, as do my wife and I, so I tried to explore it in fiction, the medium I know best. I also tried to do it with a sense of humor, something that seems to me often lacking when we talk about meaning of life issues.

American Savior, subtitled A Novel of Divine Politics, is pretty funny about politics. At one point, Jesus asks his political consultants why he is doing so badly in the polls. They are flabbergasted. “We’re up eight points in today’s poll,” one says. “Everybody should be voting for me,” Jesus observes. “Why isn’t everybody voting for me?” “Some of them are Jewish,” a campaign worker points out. About religion, though, the novel is tentative, probably because it is suspended between dogmatism and atheism.

At a news conference, Jesus is asked about abortion. He says that he has no position on it; it is right and wrong. When that satisfies no one, he announces:

[W]ith full respect for the complexity of this matter, as president, within the first two months of my first term, I will convene a national conference on the question of abortion. Held here in Kansas, the heart of the nation, televised nationally. It will not be a debate. Hate speeches will not be allowed. It will be a conference, with speakers representing each position given equal time. This will not satisfy everyone, I realize that.

No kidding. It didn’t even solve the fundamental literary problem that Merullo faced in asking his readers to suspend disbelief at the idea of Jesus running for president. He succeeded only in making the Christian savior sound like any other politician.

In The Talk-Funny Girl, Merullo takes a different approach. As he says in an author’s note, the novel is a “glimpse into the hidden world of New England’s poor.” Moreover, the title character inhabits a hidden world within that hidden world. Marjorie Richards lives with her parents in a small cabin on four acres in the woods, shut in upon themselves “as if enemies surrounded them on all sides.” She did not even attend school until she was nine, and her odd speech puts an even greater distance between her and the world outside her family. If she is not quite a feral child, she is not entirely socialized either. The strangeness of her circumstances makes her story intrinsically interesting.

Her gradual socialization is a religious experience, but Merullo softens the edges of the experience. If Marjorie gets religion, it is something like the Quaker religion that she gets. My only complaint about the novel, in fact, is that Merullo shies from a more unblushing affirmation of her discovery that life is a gift from God — that is the novel’s own language for it. In a literary age that is impatient with religion, perhaps any treatment of the theme, any suggestion that a good life is a worthy goal, runs the risk of being dismissed as dogmatic. And in any event, someone else once said somewhere that God is not in earthquake and fire but in a still small voice. Merullo is in very good company.

Among his other works, his autobiographical novels Revere Beach Boulevard (1998) and In Revere, in Those Days (2002), about growing up in a working-class town just outside Boston, stand out for their strong prose and lack of nostalgia. In a blurb on the jacket of his most recent novel, Anita Shreve says that The Talk-Funny Girl is one of the best novels she has ever read. I never thought I’d found myself nodding in enthusiastic agreement with a jacket blurb, but Roland Merullo writes a nearly flawless hand. If you haven’t ever read him, you should.

In my inaugural fiction chronicle this month for COMMENTARY, I single out Roland Merullo’s new novel The Talk-Funny Girl for special praise.

Merullo has been one of my favorites for some time. Fidel’s Last Days, his last book, was a political thriller about a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. He is not a political animal; at worst he is a conventional liberal. What is striking about him, though, is that Merullo does not share the literary left’s romantic illusions about Castro. While not an anti-Communist novel, Fidel’s Last Days remorselessly shows that the fear and distrust of ordinary life in Castro’s Cuba is “no way to live.” That’s more than enough to make it unusual.

In 2008 — two books ago — Merullo wrote a satire in which Jesus of Nazareth returns to earth and decides to run for president of the United States. In an interview, Merullo explained that he first began to write about religion because he

felt there was some space . . . between the dogmatists and the atheists. Most of my friends fall into that space, as do my wife and I, so I tried to explore it in fiction, the medium I know best. I also tried to do it with a sense of humor, something that seems to me often lacking when we talk about meaning of life issues.

American Savior, subtitled A Novel of Divine Politics, is pretty funny about politics. At one point, Jesus asks his political consultants why he is doing so badly in the polls. They are flabbergasted. “We’re up eight points in today’s poll,” one says. “Everybody should be voting for me,” Jesus observes. “Why isn’t everybody voting for me?” “Some of them are Jewish,” a campaign worker points out. About religion, though, the novel is tentative, probably because it is suspended between dogmatism and atheism.

At a news conference, Jesus is asked about abortion. He says that he has no position on it; it is right and wrong. When that satisfies no one, he announces:

[W]ith full respect for the complexity of this matter, as president, within the first two months of my first term, I will convene a national conference on the question of abortion. Held here in Kansas, the heart of the nation, televised nationally. It will not be a debate. Hate speeches will not be allowed. It will be a conference, with speakers representing each position given equal time. This will not satisfy everyone, I realize that.

No kidding. It didn’t even solve the fundamental literary problem that Merullo faced in asking his readers to suspend disbelief at the idea of Jesus running for president. He succeeded only in making the Christian savior sound like any other politician.

In The Talk-Funny Girl, Merullo takes a different approach. As he says in an author’s note, the novel is a “glimpse into the hidden world of New England’s poor.” Moreover, the title character inhabits a hidden world within that hidden world. Marjorie Richards lives with her parents in a small cabin on four acres in the woods, shut in upon themselves “as if enemies surrounded them on all sides.” She did not even attend school until she was nine, and her odd speech puts an even greater distance between her and the world outside her family. If she is not quite a feral child, she is not entirely socialized either. The strangeness of her circumstances makes her story intrinsically interesting.

Her gradual socialization is a religious experience, but Merullo softens the edges of the experience. If Marjorie gets religion, it is something like the Quaker religion that she gets. My only complaint about the novel, in fact, is that Merullo shies from a more unblushing affirmation of her discovery that life is a gift from God — that is the novel’s own language for it. In a literary age that is impatient with religion, perhaps any treatment of the theme, any suggestion that a good life is a worthy goal, runs the risk of being dismissed as dogmatic. And in any event, someone else once said somewhere that God is not in earthquake and fire but in a still small voice. Merullo is in very good company.

Among his other works, his autobiographical novels Revere Beach Boulevard (1998) and In Revere, in Those Days (2002), about growing up in a working-class town just outside Boston, stand out for their strong prose and lack of nostalgia. In a blurb on the jacket of his most recent novel, Anita Shreve says that The Talk-Funny Girl is one of the best novels she has ever read. I never thought I’d found myself nodding in enthusiastic agreement with a jacket blurb, but Roland Merullo writes a nearly flawless hand. If you haven’t ever read him, you should.

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“One Novel a Decade Isn’t Going to Cut It”

Not if American novelists hope to regain a prominent place in the culture, concludes Dwight Garner in the magazine section of Sunday’s New York Times. He singles out Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen for special reproof. Eugenides’s last novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, was published nine years ago. (The Marriage Plot, his third novel in 18 years, will be released in three weeks.) Franzen has been equally deliberate, taking nine years to finish this third novel and then another nine to finish last year’s Freedom.

Garner is convinced that something “meaningful” is going on here, even if his prose style is not up to the task of saying what the thing might be:

[T]hese long spans between books may indicate a desalinating tidal change in the place novelists occupy in our culture. Suddenly our important writers seem less like color commentators, sifting through the emotional, sexual and intellectual detritus of how we live today, and more like a mountaintop Moses, handing down the granite tablets every decade or so to a bemused and stooped populace.

This much is sure: Garner would be well-advised not to write a novel of his own. From what I can make out between the strained grunts of pseudo-profundity, novelists need to publish more often to keep their names before the public. What they lack is market presence. A whole generation of writers, Garner moans, is relatively absent from the culture. Maybe they should hire Sidney Falco.

Garner has muddled together two separate observations. On the one hand, some novelists are slower and less prolific than others. Yet their rate of production has little or nothing to do with their “place in the culture” (whatever that means exactly). W. Somerset Maugham (b. 1874) and E. M. Forster (b. 1876) were contemporaries. Maugham published 20 novels at the rate of a new one every two-and-a-half years. Forster started quickly, publishing four novels in five years. But he took a decade to write his masterpiece — A Passage to India — and then did not publish another novel in his lifetime (he died in 1970). Even Maugham, though, worked for seven years on his best book (Of Human Bondage). In the long view of literary history, Forster is easily the more important, the more “meaningful,” English novelist. And not even Maugham’s most dedicated readers have longed for more books like The Bishop’s Apron or The Hour before Dawn. Good books, not more books — that’s the message of literary history.

On the other hand, the novel has obviously declined in cultural significance. No one would deny that. The empty-headed distinction between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction,” which continues to be thrown around as if it referred to anything more than an inability to read intelligently, is testament to the novel’s decline. As much as I disliked Freedom, Franzen’s ambition to write a “big social novel,” to undertake the “job of social instruction,” is admirable. Novelists may not be “color commentators” (my God, what stupid language!), but they are part of the American discussion, the constant back-and-forth over American ideals and values, and they should write as if they are.

If what Garner calls their “lagging output” is not the reason for their cultural decline, then, what is? The answer is not so difficult. “Our important writers” — the writers who are known as “literary,” the writers who are “serious” about literature — belong to a coherent and homogeneous social class. They receive a common education in English departments and writers’ workshops, where they inherit a common set of assumptions and principles. They are employed in a common profession, which nurtures a common lifestyle. Their entire approach to human experience is literary (this is the sense in which they deserve to be known as “literary writers”), because they know little else than literature. Their politics are shallow and predictable, because their political views are public displays of self-identification with their class. They have not the first idea what non-writers and non-academics do with themselves all day. The only conceivable human problems are the problems of literary intellectuals.

There are exceptions. Earlier this year Roland Merullo’s Talk-Funny Girl and Lee Martin’s Break the Skin plunged into the lives of people far removed from literary society, whose problems are matters of life and death. Neither book, however, received much attention. No surprise, really. Readers have come to expect a certain uniformity of tastes and social habits, a certain language of class fellowship and commonality, from fiction that is known as “literary.” And even good books by good writers suffer by association.

Not if American novelists hope to regain a prominent place in the culture, concludes Dwight Garner in the magazine section of Sunday’s New York Times. He singles out Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen for special reproof. Eugenides’s last novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, was published nine years ago. (The Marriage Plot, his third novel in 18 years, will be released in three weeks.) Franzen has been equally deliberate, taking nine years to finish this third novel and then another nine to finish last year’s Freedom.

Garner is convinced that something “meaningful” is going on here, even if his prose style is not up to the task of saying what the thing might be:

[T]hese long spans between books may indicate a desalinating tidal change in the place novelists occupy in our culture. Suddenly our important writers seem less like color commentators, sifting through the emotional, sexual and intellectual detritus of how we live today, and more like a mountaintop Moses, handing down the granite tablets every decade or so to a bemused and stooped populace.

This much is sure: Garner would be well-advised not to write a novel of his own. From what I can make out between the strained grunts of pseudo-profundity, novelists need to publish more often to keep their names before the public. What they lack is market presence. A whole generation of writers, Garner moans, is relatively absent from the culture. Maybe they should hire Sidney Falco.

Garner has muddled together two separate observations. On the one hand, some novelists are slower and less prolific than others. Yet their rate of production has little or nothing to do with their “place in the culture” (whatever that means exactly). W. Somerset Maugham (b. 1874) and E. M. Forster (b. 1876) were contemporaries. Maugham published 20 novels at the rate of a new one every two-and-a-half years. Forster started quickly, publishing four novels in five years. But he took a decade to write his masterpiece — A Passage to India — and then did not publish another novel in his lifetime (he died in 1970). Even Maugham, though, worked for seven years on his best book (Of Human Bondage). In the long view of literary history, Forster is easily the more important, the more “meaningful,” English novelist. And not even Maugham’s most dedicated readers have longed for more books like The Bishop’s Apron or The Hour before Dawn. Good books, not more books — that’s the message of literary history.

On the other hand, the novel has obviously declined in cultural significance. No one would deny that. The empty-headed distinction between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction,” which continues to be thrown around as if it referred to anything more than an inability to read intelligently, is testament to the novel’s decline. As much as I disliked Freedom, Franzen’s ambition to write a “big social novel,” to undertake the “job of social instruction,” is admirable. Novelists may not be “color commentators” (my God, what stupid language!), but they are part of the American discussion, the constant back-and-forth over American ideals and values, and they should write as if they are.

If what Garner calls their “lagging output” is not the reason for their cultural decline, then, what is? The answer is not so difficult. “Our important writers” — the writers who are known as “literary,” the writers who are “serious” about literature — belong to a coherent and homogeneous social class. They receive a common education in English departments and writers’ workshops, where they inherit a common set of assumptions and principles. They are employed in a common profession, which nurtures a common lifestyle. Their entire approach to human experience is literary (this is the sense in which they deserve to be known as “literary writers”), because they know little else than literature. Their politics are shallow and predictable, because their political views are public displays of self-identification with their class. They have not the first idea what non-writers and non-academics do with themselves all day. The only conceivable human problems are the problems of literary intellectuals.

There are exceptions. Earlier this year Roland Merullo’s Talk-Funny Girl and Lee Martin’s Break the Skin plunged into the lives of people far removed from literary society, whose problems are matters of life and death. Neither book, however, received much attention. No surprise, really. Readers have come to expect a certain uniformity of tastes and social habits, a certain language of class fellowship and commonality, from fiction that is known as “literary.” And even good books by good writers suffer by association.

Read Less

National Book Award’s First Cut

The semifinalists for the National Book Awards — 20 of them in four different categories — will be divulged with much fanfare in a PBS radio program next month. Perhaps the most prestigious American literary prize, the NBA is handed out for the best book published between December 1 of the previous year and November 30 of the current year; or at least the “best” as judged by a panel of five designated literary experts. Only publishers are allowed to nominate books for consideration, and self-published books are locked out — a feature of the prize that emphasizes its true function. Namely: to provide advertising for publishers. Like the NCAA, the National Book Award is something of a cartel that protects its own.

Last year 302 books were formally submitted for the fiction prize. The surprise winner was the horse-racing novel Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon — a “bona fide bolt from the blue,” according to Janet Maslin of the New York Times. Published by the “independent literary and arts” house McPherson & Co., the prize was viewed in some precincts as a gesture of support to small publishers. Gordon edged out Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, Nicole Krauss’s Great House, Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, and Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel — an undistinguished bunch.

So what fiction is most likely to make the first cut? I don’t know that I can come up with 20, but here are at least 10 that I would nominate if I could (in alphabetical order):

• Jo Ann Beard, In Zanesville (Little, Brown). For a long time now I have been complaining about the absence of place in American fiction (see here and here). Beard’s winsome novel of two girlfriends growing up together in a small Ohio town shows what has been missing and why it adds such a rich dimension to good fiction.

• Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A novel about a graduate student whose adoration for the traditional English novel — the novel with a marriage plot — collides with her academic allegiance to poststructuralist theory, and her own pre-conjugal adventures. Sounds terrible, I know, but everything that Eugenides touches turns to gold.

• William Giraldi, Busy Monsters (W. W. Norton). A revival of the facetious mode of the early Evelyn Waugh, Giraldi’s first novel tells the uproarious story of a New England nebbish trying to win back his Southern belle’s love.

• Ron Hansen, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion (Scribner). A reconstruction of the famous “dumb-bell murder” case of 1929 told with a fine eye for historical detail and a light, almost undetectable moral touch. (Review coming up in the October COMMENTARY.)

• Ha Jin, Nanjing Requiem (Pantheon). A brave and bracing novel about the heroic American missionaries — the epiphet is Jin’s — who helped save 200,000 civilians from the Rape of Nanjing.

• William Kennedy, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes (Viking). As a reporter, Kennedy covered the Cuban revolution and the civil rights movement. In the latest installment of his “Albany cycle,” he strings them together in a high-spirited yarn. His novels don’t always cohere, but few writers can compete with Kennedy for sentence-to-sentence enjoyment.

• Lee Martin, Break the Skin (Crown).

• Roland Merullo, The Talk-Funny Girl (Crown). The honest and plainly told story of a girl who “was not treated well” by frightening antisocial parents, and how she redeemed something beautiful from the evil. (Review coming up in the October COMMENTARY.)

• Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (Scribner).

• Jean Thompson, The Year We Left Home (Simon & Schuster). A family saga that spans thirty years in the lives of four small-town Iowa children and their parents. The novel does not set out to document social changes or memorialize a social class, but rather to suggest that some people still think in terms of what has to be done, even in an age of technological convenience and easy divorce. A work of unusual optimism.

I am already on record as saying that Stone Arabia is the best novel of the year so far (although Merullo’s nearly flawless Talk-Funny Girl is breathing down Spiotta’s neck), and Jeffrey Eugenides is the best American writer born since 1960, but my prediction is that none of these 10 novels will win the National Book Award. It will go to a book few people have heard of and fewer have read.

The semifinalists for the National Book Awards — 20 of them in four different categories — will be divulged with much fanfare in a PBS radio program next month. Perhaps the most prestigious American literary prize, the NBA is handed out for the best book published between December 1 of the previous year and November 30 of the current year; or at least the “best” as judged by a panel of five designated literary experts. Only publishers are allowed to nominate books for consideration, and self-published books are locked out — a feature of the prize that emphasizes its true function. Namely: to provide advertising for publishers. Like the NCAA, the National Book Award is something of a cartel that protects its own.

Last year 302 books were formally submitted for the fiction prize. The surprise winner was the horse-racing novel Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon — a “bona fide bolt from the blue,” according to Janet Maslin of the New York Times. Published by the “independent literary and arts” house McPherson & Co., the prize was viewed in some precincts as a gesture of support to small publishers. Gordon edged out Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, Nicole Krauss’s Great House, Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, and Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel — an undistinguished bunch.

So what fiction is most likely to make the first cut? I don’t know that I can come up with 20, but here are at least 10 that I would nominate if I could (in alphabetical order):

• Jo Ann Beard, In Zanesville (Little, Brown). For a long time now I have been complaining about the absence of place in American fiction (see here and here). Beard’s winsome novel of two girlfriends growing up together in a small Ohio town shows what has been missing and why it adds such a rich dimension to good fiction.

• Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A novel about a graduate student whose adoration for the traditional English novel — the novel with a marriage plot — collides with her academic allegiance to poststructuralist theory, and her own pre-conjugal adventures. Sounds terrible, I know, but everything that Eugenides touches turns to gold.

• William Giraldi, Busy Monsters (W. W. Norton). A revival of the facetious mode of the early Evelyn Waugh, Giraldi’s first novel tells the uproarious story of a New England nebbish trying to win back his Southern belle’s love.

• Ron Hansen, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion (Scribner). A reconstruction of the famous “dumb-bell murder” case of 1929 told with a fine eye for historical detail and a light, almost undetectable moral touch. (Review coming up in the October COMMENTARY.)

• Ha Jin, Nanjing Requiem (Pantheon). A brave and bracing novel about the heroic American missionaries — the epiphet is Jin’s — who helped save 200,000 civilians from the Rape of Nanjing.

• William Kennedy, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes (Viking). As a reporter, Kennedy covered the Cuban revolution and the civil rights movement. In the latest installment of his “Albany cycle,” he strings them together in a high-spirited yarn. His novels don’t always cohere, but few writers can compete with Kennedy for sentence-to-sentence enjoyment.

• Lee Martin, Break the Skin (Crown).

• Roland Merullo, The Talk-Funny Girl (Crown). The honest and plainly told story of a girl who “was not treated well” by frightening antisocial parents, and how she redeemed something beautiful from the evil. (Review coming up in the October COMMENTARY.)

• Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (Scribner).

• Jean Thompson, The Year We Left Home (Simon & Schuster). A family saga that spans thirty years in the lives of four small-town Iowa children and their parents. The novel does not set out to document social changes or memorialize a social class, but rather to suggest that some people still think in terms of what has to be done, even in an age of technological convenience and easy divorce. A work of unusual optimism.

I am already on record as saying that Stone Arabia is the best novel of the year so far (although Merullo’s nearly flawless Talk-Funny Girl is breathing down Spiotta’s neck), and Jeffrey Eugenides is the best American writer born since 1960, but my prediction is that none of these 10 novels will win the National Book Award. It will go to a book few people have heard of and fewer have read.

Read Less

“The Pawnbroker” at Fifty

Fifty years ago this week Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel The Pawnbroker was published. While it is customarily described as one of the first American novels to examine the moral and spiritual consequences of the Holocaust, the truth is that Wallant’s novel has been superseded by later fictional accounts that perform the examination with a keener insight derived from deeper historical knowledge. The Pawnbroker is not really a Holocaust novel at all. It is something different. And at least when it comes to the American novel, something better. The Pawnbroker is one of the last examples of a genre that has largely disappeared from American shores — the meaning-making novel, the novel with something to say, the novel with an overt and unembarrassed message.

In a short review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review — the only notice the paper took of the novel — staff writer Morris Gilbert praised Wallant for his “great insight into the wretched world he describes.” But there are really two worlds in The Pawnbroker, and both of them are wretched. Sol Nazerman manages a pawnshop in Harlem, practicing “the ancient, despised profession” of Jewish moneylender. At the age of forty-five, he has neither friends nor heart (“Haven’t you got a heart?” a customer whines, bargaining for more money. “No,” Sol answers. “No heart”). But he is also a scholar and an intellectual, a former professor at the University of Cracow, whose family was murdered by the German Nazis before his eyes. Imprisoned at an unnamed death camp, he was impressed into the Sonderkommandos, although Wallant does not appear to know the term, and is tormented by what becomes of him in the constant presence of death:

The smell of burning flesh entered him, and it was as though he ate the most forbidden food. A great and eternal sickness began in him. The smoke of their bodies was blowing north when this hideous hunger hit him. He lusted for rich meats and heavy pastries, had an insane yearning for wine and coffee. He dug his clawlike fingernails into his thighs to punish himself for not praying to that fleeting, greasy smoke. But all he felt was this great desire for food. And then his lust turned to a hunger of the loins, and he wondered at the monster he was.

Unlike William Styron, who boasted in Sophie’s Choice that he had thoroughly studied the “historical account,” reading books by Elie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski, Olga Lengyel, Eugen Kogon, and Bruno Bettelheim before starting his own, Wallant relies only upon his own imagination, aided by conversations with a Holocaust survivor whom he knew personally, to recreate the experiences of a Polish Jew in the camps. Although historical ignorance (or half-learning, in the case of Styron) is a defect in most novelists, it is unexpectedly an advantage for Wallant. He is not trying to fill in the emotional blanks of the historical record. He is trying, quite explicitly, to write a symbolic account.

Nobody could get away with it today. Wallant was writing at a time, though, when historical ignorance of the Holocaust was widespread and unavoidable, except among a few scholars. Gerald Reitlinger’s Final Solution (1953), the only English-language history to date, had been issued by a small publishing house in a small print run (the New York Times did not get around to reviewing it). Raul Hilberg’s comprehensive 700-page Destruction of the European Jews was not published until two months after Wallant’s novel appeared.

Wallant also wrote long before the psychologists’ term of art post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was coined. Nor was the Holocaust, for him, an “incurable wound,” as Edmund Wilson spoke of it in The Wound and the Bow (1941) — a special variety of “morbid psychology,” with the literary treatment, as in Sophocles, “clinical” and “up-to-date in the physical science of his time.” For Wallant, the Holocaust was a mythic, nearly religious event, a sort of reverse Sinai. The Jews at Sinai were terrified by the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; they begged Moses to mediate between God and them, lest they die. The title character of Wallant’s novel has passed through a similar experience: “His memory was screened off, his hopes had long ago been amputated.” Because he had approached too closely to the infinite evil that is the reverse image of God, he had been

cauterized of all abstract things. Reality consisted of the world within one’s sight and smell and hearing. He commemorated nothing; it was the secret of his survival.

His very name is symbolic. Sol Nazerman is a nazir man, a post-Holocaust Nazirite who avoids the intoxicants of modern life, not because he is consecrated to God, but because his experience at the limits of experience has separated him from the mass of men. His pawnshop is a front for a gangster’s money-laundering operation, but Nazerman does not care where his own money comes from. He lives in a large house in Mount Vernon with his sister’s family, who depend upon him for financial support. He is contemptuous of them, and barely less so toward his mistress and her father, who also survived the Holocaust. “How did he get like that?” asks a doctor who comes to treat him. “Some bad accident or what?” “A very bad accident,” Nazerman replies. “Of birth. He was in the camps.”

Nazerman feels neither grief for his wife and children who died in the camps nor pity for the blacks of Harlem who frequent his store, asking for small loans on badly used objects. He is, by his own admission, barely human. He is “like a creature embedded in a plastic block.” Although he is not suicidal, he is not eager to prolong life either: “enough of this,” he says, “too much of this.”

The novel moves relentlessly toward the event that finally shatters Nazerman’s block of plastic. Jesus Ortiz, his black Puerto Rican clerk, who planned to rob him, is shot dead while trying to shield Nazerman from another robber’s bullet:

All his anesthetic numbness left him. He became terrified of the touch of air on the raw wounds. What was this great, agonizing sensitivity and what was it for? Good God, what was all this? Love? Could this be love? . . . Oh no, not love! For whom? All these dark, dirty creatures? They turn my stomach, they sicken me. Oh, this din, this pain and thrashing.

To put it as bluntly as possible, Nazerman is saved by Jesus and is reborn — into conscience, human feeling, responsibility. He phones his nephew Morton, an aimless art student whom Nazerman had scorned, to come take Jesus’s place and learn “the ancient, despised profession.”

The ending is far too neatly symbolic, especially to fifty-years-wiser ears. But that is also part of The Pawnbroker’s distinction and charm. Compared to the ease of flow in many recent novels, whose writers studied in creative writing workshops to polish a verbal surface to a high gloss, Wallant’s novel is stiff and awkward and amateurishly bold. In the second decade of the 21st century, no American novelist would give his characters names like Nazerman and Jesus. A minor character would never look upon the hero and say, “That man suffer!” Religious symbolism is now taboo, direct statement shameful. But as a consequence, you will never again have the experience of reading a novel that is heavily laden with significance, not unless you are willing to read a novel that is at least fifty years old.

Fifty years ago this week Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel The Pawnbroker was published. While it is customarily described as one of the first American novels to examine the moral and spiritual consequences of the Holocaust, the truth is that Wallant’s novel has been superseded by later fictional accounts that perform the examination with a keener insight derived from deeper historical knowledge. The Pawnbroker is not really a Holocaust novel at all. It is something different. And at least when it comes to the American novel, something better. The Pawnbroker is one of the last examples of a genre that has largely disappeared from American shores — the meaning-making novel, the novel with something to say, the novel with an overt and unembarrassed message.

In a short review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review — the only notice the paper took of the novel — staff writer Morris Gilbert praised Wallant for his “great insight into the wretched world he describes.” But there are really two worlds in The Pawnbroker, and both of them are wretched. Sol Nazerman manages a pawnshop in Harlem, practicing “the ancient, despised profession” of Jewish moneylender. At the age of forty-five, he has neither friends nor heart (“Haven’t you got a heart?” a customer whines, bargaining for more money. “No,” Sol answers. “No heart”). But he is also a scholar and an intellectual, a former professor at the University of Cracow, whose family was murdered by the German Nazis before his eyes. Imprisoned at an unnamed death camp, he was impressed into the Sonderkommandos, although Wallant does not appear to know the term, and is tormented by what becomes of him in the constant presence of death:

The smell of burning flesh entered him, and it was as though he ate the most forbidden food. A great and eternal sickness began in him. The smoke of their bodies was blowing north when this hideous hunger hit him. He lusted for rich meats and heavy pastries, had an insane yearning for wine and coffee. He dug his clawlike fingernails into his thighs to punish himself for not praying to that fleeting, greasy smoke. But all he felt was this great desire for food. And then his lust turned to a hunger of the loins, and he wondered at the monster he was.

Unlike William Styron, who boasted in Sophie’s Choice that he had thoroughly studied the “historical account,” reading books by Elie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski, Olga Lengyel, Eugen Kogon, and Bruno Bettelheim before starting his own, Wallant relies only upon his own imagination, aided by conversations with a Holocaust survivor whom he knew personally, to recreate the experiences of a Polish Jew in the camps. Although historical ignorance (or half-learning, in the case of Styron) is a defect in most novelists, it is unexpectedly an advantage for Wallant. He is not trying to fill in the emotional blanks of the historical record. He is trying, quite explicitly, to write a symbolic account.

Nobody could get away with it today. Wallant was writing at a time, though, when historical ignorance of the Holocaust was widespread and unavoidable, except among a few scholars. Gerald Reitlinger’s Final Solution (1953), the only English-language history to date, had been issued by a small publishing house in a small print run (the New York Times did not get around to reviewing it). Raul Hilberg’s comprehensive 700-page Destruction of the European Jews was not published until two months after Wallant’s novel appeared.

Wallant also wrote long before the psychologists’ term of art post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was coined. Nor was the Holocaust, for him, an “incurable wound,” as Edmund Wilson spoke of it in The Wound and the Bow (1941) — a special variety of “morbid psychology,” with the literary treatment, as in Sophocles, “clinical” and “up-to-date in the physical science of his time.” For Wallant, the Holocaust was a mythic, nearly religious event, a sort of reverse Sinai. The Jews at Sinai were terrified by the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; they begged Moses to mediate between God and them, lest they die. The title character of Wallant’s novel has passed through a similar experience: “His memory was screened off, his hopes had long ago been amputated.” Because he had approached too closely to the infinite evil that is the reverse image of God, he had been

cauterized of all abstract things. Reality consisted of the world within one’s sight and smell and hearing. He commemorated nothing; it was the secret of his survival.

His very name is symbolic. Sol Nazerman is a nazir man, a post-Holocaust Nazirite who avoids the intoxicants of modern life, not because he is consecrated to God, but because his experience at the limits of experience has separated him from the mass of men. His pawnshop is a front for a gangster’s money-laundering operation, but Nazerman does not care where his own money comes from. He lives in a large house in Mount Vernon with his sister’s family, who depend upon him for financial support. He is contemptuous of them, and barely less so toward his mistress and her father, who also survived the Holocaust. “How did he get like that?” asks a doctor who comes to treat him. “Some bad accident or what?” “A very bad accident,” Nazerman replies. “Of birth. He was in the camps.”

Nazerman feels neither grief for his wife and children who died in the camps nor pity for the blacks of Harlem who frequent his store, asking for small loans on badly used objects. He is, by his own admission, barely human. He is “like a creature embedded in a plastic block.” Although he is not suicidal, he is not eager to prolong life either: “enough of this,” he says, “too much of this.”

The novel moves relentlessly toward the event that finally shatters Nazerman’s block of plastic. Jesus Ortiz, his black Puerto Rican clerk, who planned to rob him, is shot dead while trying to shield Nazerman from another robber’s bullet:

All his anesthetic numbness left him. He became terrified of the touch of air on the raw wounds. What was this great, agonizing sensitivity and what was it for? Good God, what was all this? Love? Could this be love? . . . Oh no, not love! For whom? All these dark, dirty creatures? They turn my stomach, they sicken me. Oh, this din, this pain and thrashing.

To put it as bluntly as possible, Nazerman is saved by Jesus and is reborn — into conscience, human feeling, responsibility. He phones his nephew Morton, an aimless art student whom Nazerman had scorned, to come take Jesus’s place and learn “the ancient, despised profession.”

The ending is far too neatly symbolic, especially to fifty-years-wiser ears. But that is also part of The Pawnbroker’s distinction and charm. Compared to the ease of flow in many recent novels, whose writers studied in creative writing workshops to polish a verbal surface to a high gloss, Wallant’s novel is stiff and awkward and amateurishly bold. In the second decade of the 21st century, no American novelist would give his characters names like Nazerman and Jesus. A minor character would never look upon the hero and say, “That man suffer!” Religious symbolism is now taboo, direct statement shameful. But as a consequence, you will never again have the experience of reading a novel that is heavily laden with significance, not unless you are willing to read a novel that is at least fifty years old.

Read Less

Review: All for the Sake of Love

Lee Martin, Break the Skin (New York: Crown, 2011). 272 pp. $24.00.

After it is all over, after the perpetrators have all been caught and tried and sentenced, one girl catches the eye of another in court and understands at once how easy it is to get swept up in a crime. “It was all about wanting to matter to someone,” she says, “wanting it so badly that you did things you never could have imagined, and you swore they were right, all for the sake of love.”

You don’t have to agree with the conclusion to Lee Martin’s fifth novel, or even find it convincing as an explanation why good people do bad things, to admire the execution of Break the Skin. Martin adapts the convention of alternating chapters — one of the basic formulae of contemporary American fiction — to tell the stories of two young women who are connected by love of the same man, although they are strangers to each other, living in two different parts of the country. It doesn’t hurt that Martin is so good at impersonating his women, poorly educated, working class, without resorting to either dialect or pity. (Full disclosure: Martin and I both teach at the Ohio State University, but I know him only through his published writing.)

Laney Volk is a high-school dropout living in Mt. Gilead, a small town located at the junction of U.S. 50 and state route 130 in southeastern Illinois. Laney says she is “as ordinary as bread from the wrapper,” despite a singing voice as big as Whitney Houston’s, which reminds her listeners that “no matter how scruffed up your life might be . . . you could still feel.” The music teacher and her mother urge Laney to “claim” her talent, or at least go to college, but she takes a job on the “gravedigger” shift at Walmart. When her mother warns that she is “on a fast track to nowhere,” Laney moves out and takes up residence in a double-wide trailer with Delilah Dade, whom she describes as “the pretty one,” but whom her mother describes as “trashy.” Rose MacAdow soon joins the household. A “big woman with a big heart,” Rose also works at Walmart. When Delilah takes up with Tweet Swain, a local rocker — the names are not the novel’s best feature — Laney just naturally takes up with Lester Stripp, a hanger-on with the band. And Rose is left alone with her bitterness.

Without transition or narrative juncture, the scene shifts to Denton, a small city on the edge of the Dallas metroplex (and home to North Texas University, where Martin taught before coming to Columbus). There Betty Ruiz (“most folks known me as Miss Baby”) finds a man wandering the streets in what is explained later as a fugue state. When she goes through his wallet, Miss Baby discovers that his name is Lester Stripp. She renames him Donnie True and reinvents his life for him. A tattoo artist with a salon called Babyheart’s Tats, Miss Baby tells him and everyone who will listen that they are married. What she is doing is crazy, she admits, but you must understand “how desperate I’d always been for a good man to watch over me.” Before long Lester (er, Donnie) is dragged into the family problems. A latter-day cattle rustler, Miss Baby’s brother Pablo has cheated his partner and is now on the run from both the police and a violent sociopath named Slam Dent. When the police come looking for him, they just naturally take an interest in the mysterious Donnie True.

In Mt. Gilead, the tangle of bitterness and jealousy ends with a double murder; in Denton, with a ferocious beating and the flight of a wanted man. Neither Laney nor Miss Baby seek out criminality, but they are both “so starved for love” that their lives “spin out of control.” On trial for her role in a conspiracy to commit murder, Laney is prepared to admit the truth:

There were all these lives going on in people and they didn’t even know it, all these lives festering just beneath the skin. The prick of a needle here or there, and everything you thought you weren’t could get out and stain you forever, could ripple out to other people — you could even swear you loved them — and hurt them in ways you never could have imagined. You could be that person you saw sometimes on the news, that person who’d done something unforgivable and could barely face it. Trust me, I wanted to say. It can happen.

Martin studiously keeps his own views to himself. A critic can’t help but wonder, though. Two of the most destructive trends in American culture are the decline of marriage and the loss of religious faith among the working poor. It is perhaps no accident that there is neither a church community nor an intact marriage in Break the Skin. “All for the sake of love,” as Lee Martin tragically shows, does nothing to provide “ragged lives” with social mobility or economic well-being or, sometimes, even simple ordinary freedom.

Lee Martin, Break the Skin (New York: Crown, 2011). 272 pp. $24.00.

After it is all over, after the perpetrators have all been caught and tried and sentenced, one girl catches the eye of another in court and understands at once how easy it is to get swept up in a crime. “It was all about wanting to matter to someone,” she says, “wanting it so badly that you did things you never could have imagined, and you swore they were right, all for the sake of love.”

You don’t have to agree with the conclusion to Lee Martin’s fifth novel, or even find it convincing as an explanation why good people do bad things, to admire the execution of Break the Skin. Martin adapts the convention of alternating chapters — one of the basic formulae of contemporary American fiction — to tell the stories of two young women who are connected by love of the same man, although they are strangers to each other, living in two different parts of the country. It doesn’t hurt that Martin is so good at impersonating his women, poorly educated, working class, without resorting to either dialect or pity. (Full disclosure: Martin and I both teach at the Ohio State University, but I know him only through his published writing.)

Laney Volk is a high-school dropout living in Mt. Gilead, a small town located at the junction of U.S. 50 and state route 130 in southeastern Illinois. Laney says she is “as ordinary as bread from the wrapper,” despite a singing voice as big as Whitney Houston’s, which reminds her listeners that “no matter how scruffed up your life might be . . . you could still feel.” The music teacher and her mother urge Laney to “claim” her talent, or at least go to college, but she takes a job on the “gravedigger” shift at Walmart. When her mother warns that she is “on a fast track to nowhere,” Laney moves out and takes up residence in a double-wide trailer with Delilah Dade, whom she describes as “the pretty one,” but whom her mother describes as “trashy.” Rose MacAdow soon joins the household. A “big woman with a big heart,” Rose also works at Walmart. When Delilah takes up with Tweet Swain, a local rocker — the names are not the novel’s best feature — Laney just naturally takes up with Lester Stripp, a hanger-on with the band. And Rose is left alone with her bitterness.

Without transition or narrative juncture, the scene shifts to Denton, a small city on the edge of the Dallas metroplex (and home to North Texas University, where Martin taught before coming to Columbus). There Betty Ruiz (“most folks known me as Miss Baby”) finds a man wandering the streets in what is explained later as a fugue state. When she goes through his wallet, Miss Baby discovers that his name is Lester Stripp. She renames him Donnie True and reinvents his life for him. A tattoo artist with a salon called Babyheart’s Tats, Miss Baby tells him and everyone who will listen that they are married. What she is doing is crazy, she admits, but you must understand “how desperate I’d always been for a good man to watch over me.” Before long Lester (er, Donnie) is dragged into the family problems. A latter-day cattle rustler, Miss Baby’s brother Pablo has cheated his partner and is now on the run from both the police and a violent sociopath named Slam Dent. When the police come looking for him, they just naturally take an interest in the mysterious Donnie True.

In Mt. Gilead, the tangle of bitterness and jealousy ends with a double murder; in Denton, with a ferocious beating and the flight of a wanted man. Neither Laney nor Miss Baby seek out criminality, but they are both “so starved for love” that their lives “spin out of control.” On trial for her role in a conspiracy to commit murder, Laney is prepared to admit the truth:

There were all these lives going on in people and they didn’t even know it, all these lives festering just beneath the skin. The prick of a needle here or there, and everything you thought you weren’t could get out and stain you forever, could ripple out to other people — you could even swear you loved them — and hurt them in ways you never could have imagined. You could be that person you saw sometimes on the news, that person who’d done something unforgivable and could barely face it. Trust me, I wanted to say. It can happen.

Martin studiously keeps his own views to himself. A critic can’t help but wonder, though. Two of the most destructive trends in American culture are the decline of marriage and the loss of religious faith among the working poor. It is perhaps no accident that there is neither a church community nor an intact marriage in Break the Skin. “All for the sake of love,” as Lee Martin tragically shows, does nothing to provide “ragged lives” with social mobility or economic well-being or, sometimes, even simple ordinary freedom.

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