Coat upon a Stick, by Norman Fruchter
A Few Old Jews
Coat upon a Stick.
by Norman Fruchter.
Simon & Schuster. 254 pp. $3.95.
At a point in time when the East Side ghetto has faded in the consciousness of most younger American Jews to a blurred recollection from their parents’ childhood, it seems just a little improbable that an American Jewish writer should take as the subject for his first novel the aged sexton of a dying synagogue on the East Side. Norman Fruchter’s treatment of the traditional Jewish milieu, however, is new in mood, method, and aims. Since the late 19th century, writers who have described Old World Jewish life have been interested in recapturing from the ghetto something distinctive that was not available outside—whether a folk ethic and character (Sholom Aleichem), a set of spiritual values (Agnon), or simply one highly particular background for a varied American experience (Bellow). As a result, most fictional representations of Old World Jewry tend to emphasize its lively idiosyncrasies, its exotic appeal, its colorfulness. Fruchter, on the other hand, deliberately avoids most kinds of color. This is even literally true, for almost every scene in his novel is rendered in chill grays, with accompanying tones of somber black. The bleak lives of his handful of old men seem to interest Fruchter largely because they—and the whole pattern of existence which shaped them—are so near their end. The ghetto for him is not so much a special case of the human condition as an extreme example of it, an opportunity for looking more closely at man, the creature whose existence in general is a more or less self-conscious process of dying.
Fruchter’s fine ability to evoke sensory experience makes this process painfully immediate to the reader. The novel begins with the old sexton in his shabby rented room on the East Side; the language at once forces us to feel what it is like to experience the world through the gummed and aching senses of a sick old man. Fruchter manages to convey, for example, not only the visual blurring, but also the undercurrent of insecurity and projected fear, in a myopic’s view of the other side of the street: “The windows . . . across the street stared back at the old man, black-smudged sightless squares cut into formless gray blocks.” As Fruchter uses metaphor in this way to fix the experience of the senses, he repeatedly uses such experience, or kinesthetic imagery, as a means of rendering emotional states. A peripheral awareness of sadness becomes a “splinter” sticking to a corner of the brain; the fear of death is “a prickly crawling feeling moving downward into the buttocks.” Everything has such immediacy that the old man’s hallucinations seem almost as real to us as to him, down to the manure stains on the sleeve of his first spectral visitor. Both the old man’s world—its dirt and stench and shabbiness—and his experience of it—his pain, his obtuse-ness—impinge upon our awareness with a kind of stubborn upleasantness. Unlike the dirty beards and body odors in a writer like Mendele, the unpleasantness cannot be totally escaped by leaving the ghetto behind. Out in the American suburbs, the novel suggests, surroundings may be more antiseptic, but there is no easy escape from either the general drabness or the human condition of misery, for which the East Side squalor offers merely an exaggerated dramatic background.
It is something of a relief when the narrative periodically switches from the consciousness of the protagonist to interior monologues in the surrounding characters. Here the writer reveals another kind of novelistic talent. Viewed from the outside, his characters are a gallery of grotesques; we remember his characters partly as we remember those of Dickens—because of their very oddness. But these are Dickensian caricatures seen and felt from the inside. The best of Fruchter’s interior monologues create a sense of barely glimpsed inner perspectives beginning to unfold. I cannot recall a recent novel where I have so often been drawn into wanting to know much more about the characters than the narrative reveals: Zitomer, the candy-store prophet who remains an engagingly unpretentious, self-ironic Jew even after his “revelation”; Dawidowsky, the superannuated Communist agitator for whom “ideas are worth something even if they don’t accomplish nothing”; Rabinowitz, the beauty-loving cripple who curses God twice but is thankful for life; Rabbi Davis, an Orthodox Jewish descendent of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, who has given up trying to make people better, yet is still “not prepared to trade . . . that indefinable essence [of himself] for a set of prefabricated insides.” Fruchter has the ability to capture the essential rhythms of dialect and to build from them, without affectation or exaggerated mannerism, a kind of unassuming poetry, so that the most briefly treated characters—a Negro cleaning woman, a newsstand owner, a gravestone cutter—come alive as the narrative touches them. By contrast, the one “normal” character, the old sexton’s Americanized middle-class son, seems flat. It is hard to say whether this is simply a failure in characterization, or whether this deliberately ordinary figure merely looks pale because he is set in a world of characters so out of the ordinary.
In any case the characters live for us as they do, not because of their creator’s literary attainments but because of his moral sensibility. For Fruchter, every human being is immensely important because every human being is, in traditional religious terms, a unique soul freighted with the responsibility for its own salvation or damnation, whether or not it is willing to assume that burden consciously. And the novel is characteristically Jewish in envisaging this judgment of the soul here and now, not hereafter. Hell (as with the old man) and beatitude (as with Zitomer) are in this world. But the inevitable Christian translation of such terms in English makes them sound too melodramatic. The old man and Zitomer are judged, but not irrevocably, not with trumpet flourishes and clashing cymbals. Even Zitomer, who experiences a “conversion,” continues in an everyday fashion to be what he was, does not die to his old self.
What ultimately gives depth to Fruchter’s characters is the rare compassion with which he conceives them. The protagonist of the novel is the most unlikely object for compassion: he is a dirty old man, a mean-spirited cheat, liar, and thief, excessively proud and vengeful, not even very intelligent. Yet he has enough human sensibility to suffer, he performs one act of self-sacrificing charity, and he is finally touched with some concern about the rottenness of his moral life. We begin to realize that the author, who invented this character in all his malodorous hatefulness, also cares about him. The old man has spent his life making himself into an obnoxious thing, but in the author’s world no one totally forfeits the hope of following Zitomer, who “at fifty-six . . . stopped being a thing and became a man.”
Fruchter’s compassion never crosses the line of mere pity. Both he and his characters have their eyes too sharply on the object for any sentimental distortion to take place. This is one of the functions of the abundant naturalist detail in the novel. And the tough-mindedness which makes itself felt in descriptive technique is reflected as well in the wry humor, the distinctively Jewish self-irony, with which the characters guard themselves from the absurdities of their own emotional excesses. Thus Zitomer, the prophet, putting all the seriousness of his life behind his plea for morality can say, his storekeeper’s bargaining instinct un-blunted by his prophetic zeal, “Ten Commandments, and the first one doesn’t even tell us to do anything.”
The whole moribund community of Orthodox Jews is itself an invitation to sentimentality which the writer resists. In the novel, this community represents the way of life created through all the ages of Jewish history. That way of life is dying in America, but Fruchter does not allow himself the luxury of tears, for he is far too aware of how a Jew’s sense of belonging to the Jewish past persists and demands that he somehow come to terms with it.
But the tension between the Jewish past and present, dramatized in the relationship between the old man and his son, simply shapes the background of the narrative and is not its subject. In the leering gargoyle figure that Fruchter has chosen for his protagonist, he tests a universal moral idea: how much can a man trample upon his own human image without effacing it entirely? The predicament of being, or being a man, is put here in terms of being a mensch. And Fruchter has worked the Yiddish restating of the moral idea to full advantage. The world of Coat upon a Stick is at some points grim and depressing; in the vicinity of the hallucinated old man, it can become frightening as well. But it never invites despair because Norman Fruchter’s sure sense of a people and its past continually suggests that it is not only necessary but also possible to become a mensch.