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Like Never Before
By Ehud Havazelet
Farrar Straus Giroux. 268 pp. $23

Reviewed by Sanford Pinsker, who is Shadek Professor of Humanities
at Franklin and Marshall College.

Sunday, October 25, 1998; Page X04

  Book Reviews

The 10 interrelated stories of "Like Never Before" move inexorably toward a sadness that cracks the heart, and a hard-won reconciliation that affirms the human spirit. On its literal level, Havazelet's tale of David Birnbaum's bumpy journey from an Orthodox Jewish upbringing to the discoveries (and disappointments) of mainstream American life looks all too familiar. What makes Havazelet's fiction so extraordinary, however, is the way he creates characters we can believe in and care about. Here, for example, is a snippet from the interior consciousness of Birnbaum's mother as she ruminates about her imminent death from cancer. "Real pain, unavoidable and constant, that you can't run from or forget, that becomes your absolute center, that changes you from whatever you thought you were into simply and completely the organism that feels the pain, nothing more. Pain like this."

Such elemental confrontations with heartache affect virtually every member of the extended Birnbaum family: David's father mulls over the Holocaust he survived and that his brother did not ("Like Never Before"), delicately balancing his moral obligation against God's; a female cousin who wanted, above all else, to be married has her moments of truth as she endures a bitter series of marital disappointments ("Leah"), and David Birnbaum has epiphanies by the bucketful as we follow the arc of his movement from adolescent rebellion to adult griefs. The respective "voices" Havazelet creates put the kibosh to the notion that the young cannot etch the elderly or that men cannot imagine credible women.

At the same time, Havazelet's characters are more than the sum of their pains. They live in cultural landscapes rich with quotidian detail (Havazelet re-creates religiously observant homes without reducing them either to the pietistic or to the anthropolo-gically exotic), but, even more important, members of the Birnbaum family beam back at us with fully human faces. Havazelet's social realism stakes its fictional claim on the everyday and near at hand, which, in his case, comes to a rich mixture of the bitter and sweet – often with generous doses of a humor that includes both. At the same time, however, there are enough dashes of dream and enough touches of magical realism to make Havazelet more surprising than writers of painstaking social detail usually are. "Eight Rabbis on the Roof" is a case in point, not only because it is set in an afterlife where clock time doesn't matter and "waiting" is what one largely does, but also because the story ends in an image of Birnbaum's much-beleaguered (now dead) father climbing up a drainpipe to join the rabbis who beckon to him from the roof.

Though Havazelet's quintessentially human sentences are distinctive, one cannot read them without thinking of Bernard Malamud. That Havazelet now teaches at Oregon State University is one of those eerie coincidences that tease us into pondering place-as-destiny. Why so? Because Bernard Malamud wrote many of his most accomplished stories while teaching at the same school. Granted, Havazelet does not focus on the same Depression sensibility that grinds away at the typical Malamud protagonist, but he brings much the same spirit of compassion to a world in which the glittery attractions of the secular life are at odds with the heavy obligations of Jewish history.

The best of Malamud's stories lay bare the soul of weariness and lament, reminding us that the same corrosive forces in life that bear down on one person will sooner or later bear down on all. Many of the same things could be said about Havazelet's fiction. His first collection ("What Is It Then Between Us?" [1988]), was lavishly praised by the likes of Tim O'Brien and Ann Beattie, but the book went largely unreviewed and, worse, unnoticed. Like Never Before should change all that because its 10 stories are braided into an aesthetic whole of the sort that a young David had in mind when he corrected his father about getting certain facts in a bedtime story wrong. This son insisted that stories had unity and, moreover, that "things added up." In David's case, however, the view comes in for some hard, complicating knocks, but it also takes us very far toward explaining how Havazelet's extraordinary new collection works on the page and inside a reader's head. Jewish American fiction is currently undergoing a new rebirth of the imagination. Havazelet is surely going to be a part of whatever shape this revitalized form will take in the next few decades.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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