House of Cards
By Howard Jacobson
Simon & Schuster. 450 pp. $26
The examination of a Jewish subculture -- replete with ample interjections of misogyny, bigotry and humor -- is a familiar scaffolding upon which to erect a novel. It's a sardonic worldview that has played its hand at numerous literary tables, most predominantly by Philip Roth, the genre's king. For a modern reader of Jewish literature, then, Howard Jacobson's Kalooki Nights seems woefully anachronistic. The conventions it attacks had their heyday 50 years ago, right around the time of that Patimkin wedding in Goodbye, Columbus. One can only conclude that on Britain's comparatively sheltered shores, the shocks the London-based Jacobson attempts to administer are more dramatic.
The novel is a convoluted combination of family saga and semi-tepid murder mystery, focusing on its narrator, Max Glickman. Glickman is a Jewish cartoonist with a hefty persecution complex and a series of anti-Semitic non-Jewish ex-wives. He traverses his past and present, recounting the story of his childhood friend and neighbor, Manny Washinsky, whose obsession with the Holocaust as a child led him down the unlikely path of murdering his own parents by gassing them in their bed as they slept.
The Kalooki of the title is a card game that seems to be exclusively played by nattering Jewish housewives. It is an obsession of Glickman's mother. During her weekly sessions, Glickman learns the lessons of his heritage, which don't seem to extend much beyond sharp-witted observations but include an obstinate inclination toward insubordination. For Glickman (and Jacobson), Judaism, with its cumbersome Holocaust history, convoluted morality and tired stereotypes, has as much substance as a house of cards. This overly simplistic shtick is played out repeatedly.
In one of many expressions of his sense of pathetic grandeur, Glickman recounts listening to a lecturer read a passage written by Isaiah Berlin on Leo Tolstoy. The passage recalls Tolstoy as "at once insanely proud and filled with hatred, omniscient and doubting everything, cold and violently passionate, contemptuous and self-abasing, tormented and detached." To which Glickman (Jacobson's proxy?) responds, "Me, of course -- it was me Berlin was writing about, me as I would be at the end, the most tragic of the great cartoonists, omniscient and doubting everything, Jewish and yet not, a torment to myself, beyond human aid."
In Kalooki Nights, Jacobson proves himself a cartoonist much like his protagonist (whose epic work is entitled, bluntly, Five Thousand Years of Bitterness). Arguing that abstract art is still a violation of the prohibition on graven images in the Bible, Glickman tells Manny, "Abstraction doesn't solve it, Manny. Abstraction's a con. Only ridicule solves it. Only mockery keeps you the right side of idolatry."
Surely, there is a middle ground between idolatry and mockery. But it is this ground that Kalooki Nights keeps holy, if only by allowing it to remain untouched.
-- Jordana Horn is a writer and lawyer in New Jersey.