WILLING'S DREAM

By Ross Feld

Counterpoint. 228 pp. $25

Reviewed by Andrea Gollin

It can be a fiction writer's curiosity, or dream, or nightmare, depending on the subject matter: The writer imagines something, records it, and then it happens. When that something is the death of a spouse, well, that's enough to stop the ink flowing for a good long time, if not forever.

Ross Feld's fourth novel, Zwilling's Dream, relates the strange and sad case of Joel Zwilling, once a prodigy, who at the tender age of 22 published his first novel, an autobiographical account (written when he was just 19) of his life as the child of Holocaust survivors. As many a prodigy and all of those whose souls are tinged with romanticism can tell you, it's downhill from there. Two more novels follow, to little acclaim. Finally, Zwilling's career seems to revive with the acceptance by Harper's of his story "Prague Spring," a strange and precise tale of a writer's response to the death of his wife.

Just before the story is published, Zwilling's wife and daughter are killed in a car accident. Coincidence? Fate? A message from the gods to put the cap on the pen, move out of New York City to the Midwest, and live out a life of obscurity? "Writers, when they receive no messages, tend to compose, send, and accept back ones of their own making," the narrator of the story within the novel reports. Zwilling behaves accordingly, viewing the deaths as his responsibility. He becomes a wandering Jew of sorts, taking his guilt and his son, Nate, with him to Indiana and then to Cincinnati, where he holds unimpressive teaching positions at small colleges. For 20 years, he doesn't write. Or, rather, "whatever Zwilling did write in a moment of weakness he threw away in shame."

Eventually, he remarries. He doesn't talk much, doesn't laugh much, and keeps almost entirely to himself. Then one day Hollywood calls. There's a grant -- a large grant -- to make a movie with a Holocaust theme. Not only is Zwilling's first novel deemed appropriate, but to make it hip Nate Zwilling has been tapped to write the screenplay. Nate, ironically, also achieved notoriety at a young age, also by publishing autobiographical materials.

It's the American dream, Zwilling-style: Hard suffering pays off. The world Feld creates in Zwilling's Dream is not a happy place. It's gray and flat, with a notable absence of hope. Each character is assigned a set of conditions that, viewed with an eye more sentimental than Feld's, could be called tragic. Feld, however, has no mercy. His characters, despite their difficult situations, don't elicit the reader's sympathy; they are so sorry for themselves that they don't need any more pity.

The characters all echo Zwilling in one way or another. The most marked of these bizarre similarities occurs with the movie director, Brian Horkow. Long ago, he and Zwilling were fellow medical students, and both dropped out. They then went into creative fields, and both are considered failures by their professions although each has produced three major works. Each has a wife who is far more successful in terms of steady earning potential. Both have a dalliance with the same woman. Horkow is charming, annoying and unbalanced. He blasts into Cincinnati, demands people's attention and dismisses their problems. He tells Zwilling not to find meaning in his early tragedy: "All that happened to you was simple everyday failure." The deaths were accidents. Whether his is the voice of truth is up for grabs.

When the novel begins, Zwilling is just going through the motions, waiting to die. He is so used to punishing himself that he can conceive of no other way to live. Likewise, most of the characters are martyrs to some cause or other, real or imagined. By the end of the novel, subtle changes have occurred that make the reader feel that almost all of the characters -- including Zwilling -- are in possession of a possible future.

That's not to say that Feld is doing anything so basic as urging us to "seize the day." Zwilling's Dream is not a self-help book. Instead, it is a complex and extremely well-written account of the way that life's circumstances can take away almost everything, and then how, with the passage of time, with accidents, coincidences, one another, and the fragments of barely remembered dreams, people can will themselves to go on, to fashion a life for themselves. It's a version, of sorts, of the American dream: It's not happy ever after, but there is, finally, some measure of hope.

Andrea Gollin is a Miami-based writer and editor.