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A Bronx Tale

Reviewed by James Sallis
Sunday, September 26, 2004; Page BW06


By Cynthia Ozick. Houghton Mifflin. 310 pp. $24

For all our elaborate theorizing, all our insistence upon theme and relevance, the artist remains at heart chiefly a compulsive pattern-maker. Publicity material accompanying Cynthia Ozick's latest novel suggests that it's in part an homage to the great 19th-century writers. And it is, both in the sense that all art builds on what went before and, more specifically, in that the narrative is a kind of latticework into which each slat sooner or later gets interwoven. Characters and incidents left behind in early pages circle back onstage, taking on narrative gravity; personal conflicts skip, as in cascading mirrors, from character to character.

Set during the Depression, in "an obscure little village in a remote corner of the sparse and weedy northeast Bronx," Heir to the Glimmering World tells the story of an immigrant family and the young woman, Rose Meadows, who becomes the household's "hidden engine of survival." Cast out of the relative's house where she had been living, Rose, our 18-year-old narrator, has arrived among the Mitwissers almost by accident and with no clear knowledge of her duties after answering an advertisement for "an assistant." The Mitwissers in turn were plucked from Hitler's Germany and brought to the United States by a group who mistook the object of Herr Professor Mitwisser's scholarship, the Karaites ("a speck, a dot, a desiccated rumor on the underside of history"), for another sect, the Charismites. He had already forfeited his lofty position in the homeland, as had his wife, an experimental physicist; for weeks before their departure the family lived in a hired car, ever on the move.

Here is the professor in the new land, the door of his study barely serving to keep chaos out: "At times he would stagger up like some large prehistoric form and claw at a volume in the wall; his eyes narrowed over the open pages as before a grassy veld concealing some living morsel of a creature about to be snapped up." There are five children, a more than slightly mad wife, and a mysterious, initially absent benefactor.

Into this house where everything is "makeshift, provisional, resentful" comes Rose. "I had been brought up to cynicism. I was not easily inspired or moved," she tells us early on, while hinting at disillusions to come. And elsewhere she remarks of the father whose life is a tissue of deceit and who sent her off to live with cousin Bertram: "Most of all I thought of his lies. His lies took aim but had no point . . . enacted on a tiny stage for a tiny audience."

From her observation of the Mitwissers, Rose will learn compassion. From the family also, but particularly from its capricious benefactor, James, she will learn a great deal about lies, about the shifting features of truth and all the small stages across which our lives strut and fret.

Wealthy and wayward beyond imagining (and based on the actual Christopher Robin), James is "the Bear Boy," once a model for his father's world-beloved series of children's books. His father even dressed him in the Bear Boy's smock and rouged his knees to look like the Bear Boy's, and in every shell of a life into which James has moved since -- vagrant, actor for a traveling theater group, tutor to the Mitwisser children, benefactor, lover of the eldest Mitwisser, Anneliese -- he has gone on being "an impersonator, the Bear Boy in yet another outfit." Yet it is James who finally puts an end to the family's personal and collective tempests, just as cousin Bertram, who earlier cast Rose out of his apartment, becomes in the end her emancipator: "Mother Nature herself had no power to change a river's course, but Bertram could convert downstream to upstream, Anneliese the fallen to Anneliese the wife, mad Mrs. Mitwisser to mundanely triumphant Elsa. And me he had released. I was freed."

Valéry said that a work of art should always teach us that we have not seen what we see. That is a part of what young Rose Meadows comes to know as she emerges from the Mitwissers' life into her own. Living as we all do among unwise folk, nonetheless she also has lived for a time, and lived vividly, in a wise, quietly magical book. As have we readers. •

James Sallis is the author, mostly recently, of a collection of stories, "A City Equal to My Desire." The paperback of his novel "Cypress Grove" has just been published.

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