Alan Brody's novel is contemporary in the best sense: illuminating the present by means of a finely detailed past. It all begins when Lenny Fleischman mentions in a letter that he and his younger brother, Jack, have grown apart. Jack counters that perhaps they were never close. To support this idea, Jack describes their childhood as he remembers it - daring Lenny to share his memories and interpretations.
The two brothers grew up in Brooklyn, sons of a socialist-leaning father and a bourgeois mother. Jack was the sensitive kid. A violinist from the age of 8 and a misfit with "an overhand throw that looked as of my arm was attached to my shoulder with a paper fastener," he was a source of embarrassment to Lenny. Lenny, his elder by six years, came equipped for the streets: althletic, competitive and tough. Jack worshipped his older brother and longed for his approval.
As adults, the brothers are equally dissimilar. Jack becomes a virtuoso violinist. Lenny is an investment counselor, a striver who, as the book begins, has just been appointed economic adviser to the president. The two are more often apart than not. Yet when they are together, they always slip back into their original roles. Lenny is still the experienced adviser. Jack is still the idealistic kid with no appreciation for life's hard realities.
"Hey Lenny, Hey Jack" is written as a single letter from Jack to Lenny. The point of Jack's letter may be to revise family history, define Lenny's influence and remake the brothers' relationship. But it is in the telling that Jack learns most about himself.
Jack recounts his childhood in a series of anecdotes that are alive with the smells and sounds that make up our earliest memories. To these scenes he adds the emotion he couldn't express to Lenny at the time: "You see, as much as I was a burden to you, you were a kind of salvation for me. You were the only thing in my life that touched the world of everybody else. If people were suspicious about what kind of setup you could come from that could produce me, too, I was reassured that at least the setup that I had come from had also produced you."
The novel flashes back and forth between Jack's past and his present - a musician's strike. And along the way, Jack discusses the pressures of life as a virtuoso, the constant struggle not to put celebrity above the music.
"Hey Lenny, Hey Jack" contains some element s of a Philip Roth or Saul Bellow novel - Jewish workingclass family life, wisecracks, Yiddishisms, poorly hidden emotions. But Brody demurs when it comes to heavyhanded guilt or crippling sensitivity. His Fleishmans are not just survivors. They're winners. Jack's life is not without complexity, but it is fairly well-adjusted, and thus quite foreign to Roth's Portnoy.
Brody's touch is gentle and witty, especially in the dialogue passages.The novel never loses the simple, conversational tone of the letter. The insights into the men's lives and minds provide the reader with one flash of recognition after another. And at times the interplay of the scenes becomes almost musical, with theme and counertheme weaving effortlessly together, moving toward a clear conclusion.
The book's final crescendo is a bit cinematic. And you may not be as impressed as I was by the road maplike organization. But Alan Brody, former actor, professor of theater, and, incidentally, younger of two brothers, has written a companionable second novel.It's a book worth getting lost in.