Robert Kotlowitz’s first novel, Somewhere Else (1972), was justly praised for its unsentimentalized evocation of shtetl life in turn-of-the-century Poland, and for its complex account of the impulse to escape from the confines of that life. The book traces the pilgrimage of one Mendel, a prototypical modern Jew, from the backwaters of his native Lomza to the cosmopolitan hub of London around the time of World War I. Mendel is avid for enlightenment, and in its name he is at first prepared not only to depart from but even to readjust his past—attempting unsuccessfully to hide the fact of his Jewish ancestry from the Gentile temptress, Dorothy Sullivan. Only when Mendel comes to perceive assimilation as an essentially destructive chimera can he accept his past and simultaneously move forward to accept the implications of his rediscovered origins by joining the Jewish Legion to go fight in Palestine.
Kotlowitz’s new novel, The Boardwalk,1 although entirely different in subject matter, continues the enterprise begun in the earlier novel of charting the rocky passage to maturity. Just as Mendel’s consciously-denied destiny reaches out to tap him on the shoulder, so, in The Boardwalk, which takes place in Atlantic City in the late 30’s, do historical circumstances rise up to confront the characters in the very foreground of their lives.
It is late August in 1939 when fourteen-year-old Teddy Lewin (his father, né Levin, had been assured by his brother-in-law, “in the business fifteen years,” that “It’ll be easier for you as Jack Lewin”) comes to Atlantic City to spend two weeks with his family at Sloan’s Hotel on the boardwalk. Sloan’s is family-run, a cozier Grossinger’s, observant of dietary laws, host to a motley crew—the kind only this species of Jewish hotel seems to attract—of small-time businessmen, single women less or more on the make, and the obligatory eccentric, the intellectual Gus Levi, whose wise, brooding spirit hovers over the hotel—and the book. Gus’s advice to Teddy, “Hold fast to the nature of ordinary things, for they have the power to console,” is recorded at the story’s opening, and these words set both the novel’s theme and its literary style. Teddy is preeminently concerned with the burgeoning power of ordinary things extraordinarily perceived; he is thin-skinned, impressionable as litmus-paper: “The boy notices, becomes alert. It is habit.”
Teddy is the only constant in the shifting family group that arrives by train and taxi from Baltimore to Sloan’s doorstep. The first of the two weeks he shares a room with his beautiful, frustrated mother, Bea, and his six-year-old sister, Marion, who watches the modest Teddy undressing in the dark, and who dreams of a future in which Saul, their waiter, will be a famous lawyer and she his adoring secretary. At the end of the week comes Sloan’s Sunday night extravaganza—“a thirty-foot shivering buffet of silver herring, whitefish, carp, and bony salmon, all refrigerated in golden aspic”—and the arrival of Teddy’s grandfather, father, and elder brother to replace the departing Bea and Marion. In a particularly charged episode Teddy is taken under the board-walk by two boys who, aided by a collection of pornographic photos, induct him, amid the refuse, into the grimier mysteries of the flesh. Teddy, an incipient connoisseur of texture, a lover of “warm intelligence, elegance and wit,” transmutes the coarse adolescent presentation into its dimly-intuited adult version, with a whiff of something truly erotic: the collection of photographs becomes a “dream-book” whose pages Teddy re-turns in his mind, “patiently stalking the scented, old spoor of love, love given, love received.” The novel closes as news of Germany’s invasion of Poland is broadcast over the hotel’s radio.
The Boardwalk is a consistently intelligent and attentive novel; its mood is subdued, but in its own quiet way it manages both to evoke the plaintive chords that vibrate within the familiar melodies of life and to suggest the din that surrounds even the most peaceful of settings. The book’s theme is the unsuspected hostility of our natural environment—the inhuman steadily encroaching upon the human, “the other side of the moon . . . orbiting daily in the reflected light of the Atlantic City sun”—and of the consequent necessity for vigilance. Behind the “calm as binding as eternity,” for the sake of which its guests flock to Sloan’s, rages Hitler’s bloodthirst. Teddy’s proudly assimilated cousins in Poland answer Yiddish letters in English, and ignore anxious instructions about obtaining visas to come to America even as the deadly goose-stepping has begun.
The book’s conception is, in essence, a lyrical one, and its performance is appropriately soft-keyed. The narrative voice is well-bred; always tactful, never pushy. Kotlowitz’s technique is selective rather than synthetic: it deliberately side-steps grand effects and concentrates instead on providing a series of closeups. Kotlowitz’s most conspicuous strength is his absolutely masterful handling of details, which are so richly invested they glow like objects in a still life: “Gustave Levi was writing postcards. He used a heavy black fountain pen, thick as a cigar, with a gleaming gold point shaped like an arrow.” Yet Kotlowitz succeeds for the most part in avoiding the usual pitfall of this pars pro toto method, which is to fill the canvas with so many scrupulously-observed minutiae that the larger perspective is lost. The Boardwalk‘s proportions are deceptively narrow.
There are difficulties with the book, which stem mostly from an excess of its virtues. Perhaps it is inevitable that prose this patient, this fine-spun, can sometimes seem a trifle finicky, or that regard for craft can turn on occasion into self-regard. At times, the writing in The Boardwalk ceases to be at the service of its intentions and begins to dictate to them; the mechanism that propels the narrative, which has been whirring soundlessly, begins instead to rattle.
A more serious flaw lies in the use of the adolescent protagonist. The juvenile viewpoint, difficult to get right in any circumstances, is not often employed in novels aspiring to “major” themes, perhaps because while there is a gain in intensity, there is also an unavoidable reduction in scope. In its use of such a protagonist, The Boardwalk recalls Herman Wouk’s City Boy, but where the latter novel remains faithful to the strictures of its operating premise, Kotlowitz is unwilling to relinquish the privileges of the adult angle when he needs to get a point across. Teddy thus comes to seem less and less convincing as a fourteen-year-old; even granting his precocity, some of his aperçus seem almost ludicrously seasoned. “He was vulnerable to everything,” Teddy is caught reflecting about himself, “without emotional discretion; hidden at the bottom of his soul lay a dusty mound of unhealed wounds.”
Still, The Boardwalk is an effective and moving rendition of the process of coming to terms with the burden of mature consciousness. And it may also be taken to represent, in its calm and unselfconscious handling of its Jewish material, a particularly welcome instance of that abused genre, the American-Jewish novel. It may indeed be a sign of the times that this class of writing, lately so strident, can be shaped by Kotlowitz’s capable hands into something unembattled and almost genteel. In its wryly affectionate yet clear-eyed gaze upon matters Jewish-American, The Boardwalk both postdates and, curiously, pre-dates the aggrieved chroniclers of ethnic woe of the 50’s and 60’s, harking back instead to the bemused and unanxious air of the novels and stories of Daniel Fuchs, Isaac Rosenfeld, and especially Delmore Schwartz. The condition of Jewishness in The Boardwalk is neither struggled with (as in Bellow), nor apologized for (as in Potok), nor held in belligerent contempt (as in Philip Roth), but simply taken for granted in a spirit of critical tolerance. For this achievement too Kotlowitz deserves to be admired.
1 Knopf, 288 pp., $8.95.