Wednesday, August 27, 2008
THE END OF THE JEWS
By Adam Mansbach
Spiegel & Grau. 310 pp. $23.95
In 1935, 15-year-old Tristan Brodsky, "the sum total of five thousand years of Jewry," is "one week into City College, a mind on him like a diamond cutter." That mind's about to be changed when, despite his parents' urgings that he become a "doctor/lawyer," Tristan signs up for a literature course that meets initially in a midtown bar. Before the end of the night, he will sip his first Scotch, gulp his second, steal his third, meet a mentor, befriend a jazz musician, cab it uptown to a Harlem party, converse with a beautiful girl, get into a fight and vomit. This rousing initiation into literary life sets Tristan on a path to become the voice of the people he thought he left behind.
This may sound vaguely familiar, and indeed it is. The hero of Adam Mansbach's panoramic new novel, "The End of the Jews," is an amalgam of Saul Bellow's Augie March in his "wrenching lust for . . . a life lived in the present moment, an American life," and Philip Roth's Nathan Zuckerman in his aspiration to become "a writer [who] can wrestle with the snarled, mystifying whole, with the fact that nothing is simple, that no answer is right, that life is twinned and layered and everything contradicts everything else." Besides evoking Augie and Nathan, Mansbach elicits references to a slew of other Jewish literary figures, both real and imagined. Tristan goes through a Maileresque risk-seeking phase while his poet-wife, Amalia, channels Cynthia Ozick's frustrated muliebrity. Yet Mansbach makes this well-trodden turf his own through powerful descriptive passages and keen social analysis.
Here is Tristan during a moment of frustration: "He looked out at the street, imagined hurling his typewriter from the window and watching it explode against the pavement, vowels and consonants embedding themselves in the flesh of gossiping passersby like bits of shrapnel." And just before the fight that leads to the fledgling author's epiphany, his antagonist stands at "a distance that, in the Bronx anyway, in every schoolyard and on every street corner Tristan has ever known, implies the imminent failure of diplomacy."
As long as the novel follows Tristan's trajectory, with rich set pieces from a New York of el trains, cigarettes and fedoras, it is compelling. But in subsequent chapters, "The End of the Jews" hip-hops across continents and through decades to develop characters whose connection with the initial narrative is unclear. First, there's Nina, a teenage photographer in 1983 Czechoslovakia, and then there's RISK ONE, a graffitist oddly located in 1989 suburban Connecticut. Clearly, these characters must come together, and indeed they do. RISK turns out to be Tristan's grandson, and sparks fly when he encounters Nina after she's been spirited out of Prague by Devon Marbury Jr.'s itinerant jazz caravan.
All of these emblematic Jewish characters find their way to artistic achievement through their interactions with black men, yet success comes too easily for them. Nina's faith that "no matter how fast or slowly life unfurls, the crucial instants can be pinpointed and captured" may be true in the right hands, but it's hard to believe that, within a paragraph, the feckless RISK can give up his adolescent penchant for writing on walls, receive an MFA and, blessed by generation-skipping birthright, obtain a book contract by the next page.
Brodsky novels spring forth fully rendered, Nina's photographs are perfectly composed, the jazzman's music is magical. The author seems to reveal a kind of disdain for the less gifted, less progressive. There's a patent dismissal of RISK's mom, Linda, and Nina's parents for lacking their offspring's transformative might. Even Tristan's goyish mentor, Peter Pendergast, is raked over the coals for writing books without the ineffable Brodsky genius.
Mansbach also elides over the issue of race. Things may be different in Obama's America, but during the periods covered in the book, racial tensions were high. Interracial romances occurred, but the lovers surely faced social obstacles. By ignoring this, "The End of the Jews" begins to feel like wish fulfillment.
The book is a saga of relentless self-creation. It celebrates the exuberance of youth and tenderly acknowledges the difficulties of aging as Tristan's mind and body begin to fail him. Its intelligence and imagination are a delight. Each of the stories has its own integrity; but together, they're too much. "The End of the Jews" might have been more wisely constructed as a sequence of independent variations-on-a-theme stories rather than as a novel.