One recent spring, a young man I know received his degree from a prestigious out-of-town university, then moved back home to his parents. Now, in my time, back during the Punic Wars, such a step by a newly minted Ivy League grad would have been nothing short of exotic. But one of this young man's buddies commented simply, "How '80s!" No doubt he was on to some trend that I hadn't yet gotten wind of, which makes Paulie Bindel, the subject of this funny, touching book, a true hero for our times.
Like every young male who ever appeared in an American novel, Paulie is trying to figure out how to be a man--indeed, he's having an even harder time than most. His first stabs at independence come to nothing, and he decides to find himself in, of all places, the very Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up.
We first meet Paulie as mere flotsam in the murky whirlpool of Cambridge, wasting his education in a menial job at a Harvard Square bookstore and his peace of mind in a liaison with a girl as vacuous as she is promiscuous. But he's also a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, with all that that must novelistically imply: allergies, street smarts, plenty of guilt, a sly, explosive sense of humor, and just enough sense left to know that he's at the end of his rope.
"Back home," he observes in a statement that exposes both his predicament and Greenfield's skill in conveying it, "Rosh Hashanah has come and gone." The Jewish New Year, of course, also happened in Boston's scores of synagogues--but not for Paulie. There's no comfort for him anywhere in Harvard Square. So, under the cover of spending Yom Kippur with his family, he flees Cambridge for his father's apartment in the middle of the night with nothing but the remains of his sanity and his nasal inhaler.
And he finds, of course, all the stock characters that must, by federal law, inhabit such a fictional neighborhood--his oversolicitious mother, Esther; his passive father, Morty; his devoutly Orthodox grandfather, Mendel; a Jewish-American Princess; a pompous rabbi; and all the machers, shnorrers, and general nudniks who compose the congregation of Temple Ahavath Mizrach, the center of the Bindel family's life. But with a difference: Like Paulie himself, and the crackling dialogue Greenfield uses to tell his tale, these people are real. Greenfield knows that stereotypes exist not to make a novelist's life easy, but to make it hard: behind every one lurks the human reality of why people act that way, and the novelist's job is nothing less than showing what it is.
That Greenfield pretty much succeeds is a measure of his skill as a writer, his affection for the world he writes about and his deep understanding of its folkways. We feel Esther's pain about her weight, Morty's chagrin at his inability to help his son, even the prudish JAP's pathetic discomfort. And beyond understanding his characters as individuals, Greenfield knows them as members of groups. He knows how city people think and how ethnic neighborhoods work. He understands, for example, about the particular place where a street stops being Jewish and starts being Italian, where the Christmas decorations begin and the salumerias replace the kosher butchers. He knows how people live at ease with each other's traditions: how Gentile kids on Jewish blocks stay off the playground on Yom Kippur and how Jews wish Christians a Merry Christmas. He knows how people of different religions and nationalities work together but live apart. He grasps exactly the economic pecking order: what, for example, it means to rent rather than own.
And he does all this while being very funny much of the time. A number of scenes are simply hilarious: a meeting of the temple board of directors, Saturday morning in a beauty parlor, the annual Yom Kippur appeal for donations, a bitter showdown in the back of a post office, the hectic vigil at Mendel's deathbed. But they're hilarious not from malice but from meticulous observation. And the book also has scenes that touch more deeply: the Yom Kippur that Paulie spends with Mendel in the back of the synagogue, Mendel's haunting recollection of his years in a concentration camp.
By the book's end, the Bindels have failed at nearly everything they tried to do: win Mendel a trip to Jerusalem, help Paulie establish a career, make peace between Paulie and Morty, find Paulie a reasonable woman, put the synagogue on a sound financial footing, set Esther's life in order, penetrate the mystery of Mendel's apparently inexplicable religious faith. But in failing, Paulie has begun, at least, to penetrate the mystery of his own life. The book runs from New Year to New Year--from Yom Kippur to a particularly disastrous New Year's Eve. For Paulie, these weeks are no fun at all. For us, fortunately, just the opposite is true.