You Should Be So Lucky
Friday, September 15, 2006
By Jennifer Gilmore
Scribner. 315 pp. $25
One thing can be said for sure about this crowded, good-humored, somewhat wacky first novel: Don't give it to Mel Gibson as a Christmas present. It's all about American Jews, and while they are not deemed "responsible for all the wars in the world," as Gibson has so famously opined, the Jews within these pages do seem to earn pots of money in various ways and succeed almost beyond credibility. "Golden Country" is set from the 1920s to the 1960s, and the author puts her very large cast through some very vigorous paces. Major characters here invent America's first two-in-one cleaning agent and television (yes, television!); they make fortunes in organized crime and on the Broadway stage. One even ends up as the equivalent of "Dear Abby." All these accomplishments follow a poverty-stricken communal life in a Brooklyn ghetto filled with "hunched, weeping Jews" full of "sadness and fear: being taken, Cossacks chopping off their heads, the haunting feeling in their mothers' stomachs of the danger of a world of hate moving closer and closer still."
There are so many characters that the author gives us an elaborate, interlocking set of family trees that actually sprout a few folks too many. Leo and Sylvia Weinstein? I looked in vain for you. Dulcy Bloom? I know you were there so that your brother David wouldn't have to be an only child, but surely Jennifer Gilmore could have found something for you to do. The same for you, Gloria Weinstein. You're only there to keep sister Miriam company for a few scenes, but you never really get to open your mouth.
Like the ghetto itself, the novel is scrabbly and overpopulated. Four families predominate. The Brodskys, Herbert and Selma, have two sons: Solomon, who ends up as a gangster and a disgrace to the neighborhood, and Joseph, who will invent the two-in-one cleanser and gets stuck with the Yiddish accent and lines like "I zhink I will sit zhis one out" and "Zhis is vhat you sink is zhe problem, Fran?" But Joseph has a heart of gold, works hard, makes a fortune and marries Esther Weinstein, and they in turn have the beauteous Miriam. (Don't try to keep track of all this -- just get a feel for the thing.)
Meanwhile, the Verdonik family gives birth to two girls, the comely Pauline, who eventually runs off with Solomon the gangster and brings disgrace to her family, and the chubby Frances, who marries the man who invents the television tube, has a checkered career as an actress and ends up being the spokeswoman for that two-in-one cleanser.
And then there's yet another family, the Blooms, who possess tenuous ties to both show business and culture. Seymour Bloom, an impecunious salesman, is also involved with Solomon the gangster and brings scandal to the Bloom family. But that's the least of his worries. Seymour is married to the exquisite but pea-brained Sarah, whose parents made the mistake of sending her to Smith College. Sarah has ideas that are far above herself. She takes to drink, has a lesbian lover and is a spectacularly bad mother to David, who will later marry Miriam Brodsky. Sarah, who could be a poster child for embarrassing mothers everywhere, slurs into an open mike at David and Miriam's wedding, "Better he should marry a gentile than a Polish Jew!"
No -- better not give this one to Mel.
The tone here veers wildly from melodrama to comedy to attempts at social commentary. Miriam, for instance, is given one of the first generation of American Jewish nose jobs, which leaves her with an inconsequential button of flesh, a couple of tweaked nerves in her face and the total inability to smell. Her mother, at first defensive about it, explains to her husband, "Miriam will thank us later. . . . No one walks around with a nose like that anymore. It's completely out of fashion." All this in the name of assimilation, of turning from someone "hunched" and "weeping" into someone like Irving Berlin, who makes a cameo appearance in the narrative and stands for unequivocal success.
This novel is extremely engaging. (I read it in one sitting, staying up until after 2 in the morning.) But after Miriam and David marry, the story goes on for about 90 more pages and five more years. This is the least satisfactory section of the novel, with several truly preposterous scenes and a general feeling of sham. Characters stop "talking" or "saying" and begin to "scream" -- about a dozen times in 80 pages -- the way you might scream to get recalcitrant children to clean their rooms. A family Thanksgiving and its surrounding circumstances are so unbelievable and tone-deaf that they call into question the entire rest of the book.
Still, the early pages are so well researched and so charmingly recalled that you feel inclined to forgive the author. And when the mystery advice columnist they've all been reading for decades is revealed to be one of their own, it comes as a satisfying surprise. "All these years," Esther Weinstein Brodsky says. "A Jew from Brooklyn telling me how to behave like a lady. That's criminal." You can almost hear the author giggling. And see Mel Gibson clutching his forehead and ordering up another vodka.