The Nineteenth Elegy of John Donne, which provides Johanna Kaplan with the title of her remarkable first novel, O My America!,1 has nothing to do with America; the word serves as the unexplored terrain that is Donne’s conceit for the “new-found-land” of his mistress’s body. With ironic literalness, Miss Kaplan has appropriated Donne’s cry of sexual exultation to her very different purpose—the invented idea of America which has obsessed self-made Jewish intellectuals like her protagonist, Ezra Slavin.
In unfolding the intricate and disorderly saga of Ezra Slavin, Johanna Kaplan has brought rare intelligence and satiric virtuosity to that overworked fictional subject, the American children of immigrant Jews. What distinguishes Miss Kaplan’s rendering of this familiar type as a work of unmistakable originality, different from that of any other Jewish writer in America, is the completeness of her comic vision. She sees, she knows, and above all she hears the entire range of absurdity, pretension, cleverness, and ambition in that overwhelmingly Jewish milieu which is New York, West Side, middle class, liberal, permissive, “psychoanalytically oriented,” and happily enslaved by the Zeitgeist.
Its spokesman and sage in the 1960’s, Ezra Slavin, is a self-proclaimed anarchist and disturber of the peace, the author of books about Appalachia and frontier outlaws and a stream of vaguely Thoreauvian essays about the degradation of American life by technology and materialism. We come to know this disheveled ideologist of nonconformity not through his own vision of himself but through the exasperated, sardonic, yet grudgingly affectionate eyes of his eldest daughter, Merry, whose mother, the first of Slavin’s three wives, died when she was born. And it is entirely in keeping with his exalted self-image as a nay-sayer and critic of American society that we first encounter Ezra Slavin, in Merry’s acid reflections, as a bundle of high-minded disapproval. On the day of his death in 1972, she has put on a dress made in India to meet Ez (as she has always called him) for dinner, slyly aware that it
would annoy her father because it was a dress and therefore an implicit bourgeois demand; because it was Indian, thus taking jobs away from mere subsistence-level American workers and encouraging the exploitation of Indian ones even poorer; and because its embroidery was machine-stitched—a once vital folk craft now brutally cut off from its real source, and so cheapening to a whole culture.
Who is this incorruptible thunderer, and where did he come from? Why does he boast so often, as though he were talking about another country and not his own, “I have had a lifelong affair with America”? Ezra Slavin was born around the turn of the century on the Lower East Side and, like so many other bright young men driven by ambition and impatience, felt nothing but irritated embarrassment toward his parents by the time he went to CCNY. Though he met his first wife in those grimy streets, the Polish-born Pearl Milgram was no illiterate greenhorn; she had been educated in a Warsaw gymnasium, gone to Hunter College, and worked as a court interpreter, all of which presumably enchanted Ezra as much as her beauty. What ruined the marriage, he tells Merry many years later, was Pearl’s incomprehensible longing to be a Jewish madonna in thrall to “bourgeois domesticity”—that is, children—which he brushes aside as “one enormous piece of self-deception,” and her equally unacceptable dedication to Zionism, which he dismisses as a “senseless, pathetic obsession with the Jews.”
At Pearl’s conveniently premature death, the older child, Jonathan, is carried off by an aunt, while Merry, the baby, is dumped with Ez’s resentful old mother. He is too busy wooing his second wife, Isobel—a cool, exotically Gentile novelist from a small town in Wisconsin, a real American—until she produces a son to whom Ez is even more indifferent than he had been to Pearl’s children, as though Nicky were “Isobel’s son, not his, the result of some private, peculiar Protestant immaculate conception.”
In the triumphant last years of Ezra Slavin’s life, when his populist fantasies finally pay off, when he becomes a hero to the rebellious young and is much sought after by radio and television interviewers and the organizers of anti-war rallies, he conquers yet another bastion of America by marrying a poor and simple girl from Appalachia and settling in a dilapidated house in rural Massachusetts. As Merry angrily ruminates, looking at the awful house and its splintered chairs on a public-television program devoted to her father (“author, writer, teacher, thinker, pacifist, and fighter . . . grappling for the truth”):
He didn’t care how he lived, he didn’t care how he looked, he didn’t care what he ate: all those childhood privations were so natural to him that he lived with them still, carrying them aloft as if it were a matter of principle. But . . . he really just didn’t care. . . . He has taught me nothing but austerity.
Though Merry finds him outrageous, arrogant, dogmatically simple-minded, though she has good reason to hate her father’s guts, she is still reluctantly touched by this restless and hortatory man who, “with that first-generation disease, had believed himself to be self-generated.” He can be insufferable when he dispenses borrowed wisdom in Zabar’s—“How many things there are here that I do not want!”—but she cannot help being moved by the bravado of the intellectual gambler who “put all his money on an idea of America he had just gone ahead and made up.” Yet at the same time, what makes up the burden of this novel is the human wreckage left behind by the great man in the pursuit of his phantom lover, America.
One of the delights of Johanna Kaplan’s first book, Other People’s Lives, a collection of stories that for some perverse reason went almost entirely unnoticed, was her miraculous ear, and she has put this gift to even funnier and more telling use in O My America! Whether it is the jargon of a psychiatric social worker, the giddy incoherence of a noodle-headed teenager, or the complacency of the guests at a radical-chic brunch, she does not miss a thing.
Thus, when Merry misguidedly attempts to get to know her long-lost brother’s family, his social-worker wife throws the textbook at her: “I understand that on your part there are obviously some strong elements of neurotic fantasy operating. But . . . we will not be manipulated into any kind of collusion with pathology.” The featherbrained wife of a psychoanalyst doesn’t like her neighbors because “they’re not political at all. . . . They don’t even go to concerts!” But this is tame stuff next to the incomparable babble of Ffrenchy (for Francesca), the elder of Ez Slavin’s by-blows. If every other record of the glottal patois that passed for speech among the middle-class progressive-school would-be-hippie young toward the end of the 20th century were to vanish, one would still know from O My America! exactly how those creatures sounded as they stumbled through their linguistic underbrush of “like”s and “you know”s and “I mean”s and obscenities drained of all shock, indeed of any meaning whatever.
When Ez tries to tell fifteen-year-old Ffrenchy about the hardships his mother suffered as a girl in Russia, she shivers: “Whew! Was that because of like Auschwitz?” Horrified, he wants to know what goes on in her so-called school, and Ffrenchy obliges:
Well, see, we don’t exactly have history. We have this—this double-period thing called MACC—well, it used to be called LOOP: Living on Our Planet?. . . So now we have MACC, which is . . . oh, shit! I always forget it! Because it’s like new and everything! It’s—it’s—oh, I know! It’s Man: Animal of Community and Creativity—MACC. So, you know, it’s sort of bullshit in a way. . . . Don’t you see what I mean?
When Merry tells her that Ez’s new wife comes from Appalachia, Ffrenchy wonders, “Is she, is she like this incredibly zonked, totally weird natural head? Like this strange, strange—you know, no shoes and everything. . . .”
Five years, three abortions, and one Hindu-meditation group later, Ffrenchy is “into” a new scene, motherhood, and names the baby Mountain Spring. “It’s—it’s like zero hassle! Zero!” she sings out to Merry, and proceeds to nurse her new toy in full view of West End Avenue because it’s “total bliss-out!” The only thing wrong with Ffrenchy’s astonishing monologues is that they go on too long before Miss Kaplan recovers her stride, shuts off the racket, and shifts back to the marrow of her story.
Though Miss Kaplan is not in the least timid in mocking the hectic delirium of speech, politics, and modish attitudes that marked the metropolitan Jewish world of the 60’s, she is unfailingly responsive to the anxiety and confusion that were not altogether drowned out by the noise of liberal certainty. Poor Ffrenchy suddenly wails, “Is this all you ever get in life? Is this it?” In one form or another the melancholy question is asked over and again; the answer, though often tacit, is not a cynical one. Miss Kaplan does not suffer from the occupational disease of satirists, heartlessness, and while she deploys her sense of the ridiculous with tough acumen, she is never inhumane.
By resisting the temptation to work entirely with the broad strokes of caricature, she has also enlarged the human scope of O My America!, kept it from seeming parochial in the way that novels which depend upon the comic sound and manner of a special place and time can sometimes be. Beyond the concrete particulars of Ezra Slavin and his world, beyond the fact that he is a Jew, a New Yorker, and a radical hero of the 60’s, he is that more universal figure who recurs in many novels of family life, the egotistical father whose children become his victims. Though there are large differences of setting, character, and intention between Christina Stead’s masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, and O My America!, Ezra Slavin is strongly reminiscent of Miss Stead’s Sam Pollit, another self-glorifying iconoclast—indeed, a Fabian socialist and smug idealist perpetually lecturing his many children on the originality and nobility of his unconventional ideas about nature, science, education, family. But he is in fact an insensitive hypocrite, whose idealism is a means of manipulating his children and burnishing his vanity—just as Slavin, who cannot be bothered actually to live with his children, must still manipulate them along with the seraphic acolytes he bedazzles with his “luxurious intimacy-of-the-mind look.”
Both Sam Pollit and Ezra Slavin are viewed, and seen through, by a smoldering eldest daughter whose mother died young, making her an awkward outsider in her father’s new family. As Sam Pollit looks ahead to the utopian future his selfless efforts will bring about, he envisions his children “working with me and after me, when they understand my ideals. . . . Socialists of a new socialism. . . . I would produce mighty children, a tribe of giants to come after me.” Sam’s rhetoric is old-fashioned—the story takes place in Washington during the 1930’s—but his words convey much the same demagogic cunning one hears in Ez Slavin’s impromptu remarks to an anti-war rally in New York in 1965:
I’ve been looking around today and I see that so many of you are really young. And it seems to me that your spirit . . . is remarkable. Because you have every right to be not just angry, but furious—with your parents, with me. Because this is the America we’ve bequeathed to you! The world’s great egalitarian wonder, our forefathers’ noble utopian dream!
Between the unctuous optimism of Sam Pollit and the disingenuous self-reproach of Ez Slavin, there is little to choose. Each of them is most at home on the great stage of ego, acting out his predatory dream of power.
Miss Kaplan has grasped the slippery and difficult nature of this man with such flawless authority that we need no prototypes to understand him. At the same time, one cannot help noticing the similarity—of thought and manner, rather than of personal history—between Ezra Slavin and that countercultural demigod of the recent American past, Paul Goodman. Like Goodman, Slavin cherishes the image of himself as a lifelong adversary of the repressive forces that have stifled the free, untamed spirit of America and threatened “the community of men.” In one tour de force, Miss Kaplan supplies us with the entire text of a typical Slavin essay, written in 1939, urging Americans not to fight in the wars of a “decadent and class-ridden Europe,” to free themselves from the past and look “to our own and lawless future.” How effortlessly the heir presumptive of Avenue B, who has never set foot west of the Hudson, croons his litany of nostalgia for “our” America, for “the real life of a farm community in the prairies, a mining town in the West, a fishing village on the New England coast”!
Miss Kaplan’s ironic juxtaposition of the venerated public crusader and the private man—thoughtless son, rotten husband, negligent father—is the compelling heart of her novel. As we absorb the whole messy truth about this paragon of radical virtue, we may wonder how long he would have remained in cultural and political fashion. By dying in 1972, at the height of his glory, Ezra Slavin hedges this question as he had hedged so many others. But Miss Kaplan does not. Like many intellectual sons of immigrant Jews, Ez Slavin chooses to invent himself as a deracinated “stranger in the land”—the title of his book about Appalachia—as though he had sprung full-grown from the head of the Statue of Liberty. What Johanna Kaplan has demonstrated with such power and vitality is that the man who cuts himself off from his past also forfeits his future.
1 Harper & Row, 286 pp., $10.95.