The joys and sorrows of Harvey Swados’ fiction
With little more to recommend it beyond a possible connection to the writer Elizabeth Swados (unrelated, it turns out) and a growing affinity for my adopted borough, I picked up a copy of Harvey Swados’ Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn. The reissued collection’s title story is redolent of the insouciance that often characterizes John Cheever (before characters get boozy and start throwing punches, that is) and the sad, intoxicating nostalgia that fuels Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That.”
And yet Swados’ title story is about as far from Cheever country as you can get while staying near the shore. The narrator, newly returned from the army, espies a young woman on the subway and marvels at two critical things: her shapely legs and the wonder of her reading Isaac Rosenfeld’s “The Colony” in Partisan Review. He picks her up post haste. They pal around with a tight group until the post-war euphoria fades and the narrator finds himself seeking a kind of solace in the company of an elderly Lower East Side immigrant he meets through work and to whom he brings “Bialystocker rolls.”
When I first read that story, Swados’ portrayal of the erosion of hopes and friendships was so acute, I thought it must be a memoir. Not so, and a sense of loss persists throughout the collection notwithstanding the introduction of new characters and new venues. And yet the loss is rather welcome. Its arrival, in a story like “The Peacocks of Avignon,” for example, reminds us that something profound, blistering, joyful existed there before and we the readers get a helping of that abundance too.
In Jenny Diski’s version of the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s loyalty to God trumps love for his own family and becomes the ultimate betrayal.