On the Bookshelf
Sleuths, voyeurs, and fabulists
Ben Greenman seems plenty comfortable with his ethnicity—heck, he’s a Tablet contributing editor and put together a High Holiday project with Reboot—but his short stories tend to concentrate more on the precision of their formal and emotional effects than on, say, AIPAC, golems, or tefillin. His new collection, What He’s Poised to Do (Harper Perennial, June), emphasizes love, sex, and the mostly lost art of epistolary communication: you know, words sent by mail. Is there something Jewish about that? Maybe not—but then again, maybe Jewishness needn’t be explicit to be meaningful: Greenman managed, in the past, to make even Bigfoot sound nebbishy.
The authors of mysteries regularly identify their sleuths as Jewish, even if it isn’t always clear what that has to do with solving crimes or bringing criminals to justice. For example, Ike Schwartz, a Picketsville, Virginia, sheriff and former CIA agent, stars in Eye of the Virgin (Poisoned Pen, July), his sixth outing in Frederick Ramsay’s series of thrillers. In this latest tale, Christian religious iconography features prominently, and the Mossad plays a bit part. But why did Ramsay, an ordained Episcopal priest, make Schwartz a Jew in the first place? Simple: He “thought it would be fun to put a Jewish sheriff in Baptist-land.”
Another example: Sophie Katz, the amateur-sleuth of, most recently, Vows, Vendettas & a Little Black Dress (Mira, June) is Jewish more or less because her creator, Kyra Davis, is, too. Davis notes that “like her protagonist,” she’s “biracial”: “her mother being of Jewish, Eastern European descent and her having been African-American,” she’s “something of a one-woman Benetton ad.” In this outing, Sophie trails the murderer of her best friend, Dena, while helping to plan a wedding, too.
In other contemporary thrillers, a protagonist’s Jewishness can occupy a somewhat more central place within a mystery plot. Take Pam Jenoff’s A Hidden Affair (Atria, July), a sequel following hot on the heels of Jenoff’s 2009 effort, Almost Home. Jordan Weiss, a State Department intelligence officer, begins the new book still searching for answers about her former boyfriend, whose death by drowning in Cambridge, England, turns out to have been a hoax with serious geopolitical ramifications. In the earlier novel, Jordan’s having been “raised with the typical upbringing of an East Coast reformed Jew: enough Hebrew school to get through a bat mitzvah, then services twice a year on the High Holidays,” came into play when her investigations touched on Holocaust-era secrets. And it does not seem incidentally related to her ethnicity that, in A Hidden Affair, the young woman encounters, among other foils, a dashing, mysterious Israeli operative.
One recipe for powerful Jewish fiction: Combine two parts furious ethnic self-consciousness and one part obscenely rendered sex. (Need proof? See the collected works of Philip Roth and Mordecai Richler, among many others.) Joshua Braff’s second novel, Peep Show (Algonquin, June), follows this program thoughtfully: Set in the 1970s, it presents a New York teenager with the choice of aligning himself with either his mother’s faithful hasidism or with his father’s enterprise in the pre-Giuliani business of Times Square titillation. Note, the novel bears no relation to the 1999 Nathan Englander short story of the same name, except in its parallel fascination with extremes of both religion and sexuality.
The nine stories collected in Jon Papernick’s There Is No Other (Exile, July) likewise embrace a Rothian and Richlerian inheritance, adding to those influences a dash of the fabulism found in the work of Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The stories feature more than a little theological confusion—in one, a young woman decides to circumcise her paramour; in another, an image of the Virgin Mary appears at a suburban synagogue—as well as a few scenes of sex that would be remarkable for their rawness if such explicit sexuality were not so common in the modern Jewish tradition.
Papernick, a Canadian, cut his teeth with a widely praised collection of harrowing stories about encounters between Arabs and Jews in Israel; Avner Mandelman, a native Israeli, has lived for decades in Canada but still draws the inspiration for his fiction from the tensions of the Middle East and his own service in the Israeli Air Force during the Six Day War. Following the success of his story collection, Talking to the Enemy, Mandelman debuts as a novelist with The Debba (Other, July). Using the titular figure, “a mythical Arab hyena that can turn into a man who lures Jewish children away from their families to teach them the language of the beasts,” as its central image, the novel explores issues of Israeli patrimony, the power of theater, and the fantasies and delusions that bind Arabs and Jews together.
Briefly, here’s another way of saying what intelligent critics have been saying about An American Type (Norton, June), a novel “by” Henry Roth, which was actually assembled after his death out of his voluminous manuscripts by an enterprising editor. The rule should be this: If you haven’t already read Roth’s brilliant, classic Call It Sleep at least twice, as well as the four painful volumes of Mercy of a Rude Stream, you should not be allowed even enter the same room as a copy of An American Type, let alone read it. Not because the book could harm you, but because it would be a monumental waste of your time. And if you feel you must read the author’s recollections of life in the 1930s, visit New York City and spend an afternoon at the Center for Jewish History, flipping through the dot-matrix-printed pages of the original, messy manuscripts. That will tell you much more about Roth’s literary project than the version produced for bookstore shelves and for the profit of the author’s heirs.