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‘The New Earth’: A rich, timely novel about religion, politics and family

Jess Row’s latest is about a dysfunctional Jewish American family shattered by a tragedy in the West Bank

5 min

Jess Row’s timing is impeccable: Two decades after the second intifada, as Israelis now throng the streets of their cities, demanding an end to the overreach of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, Row publishes “The New Earth,” a rich, rollicking novel about a dysfunctional Jewish clan from the Upper West Side and the 2003 West Bank tragedy that derailed them. He has long been drawn to the subject of identity in his work — his earlier fiction and essays interrogate race and ethnicity in often pious, almost hectoring terms — but here he gracefully balances multiple registers to craft a reader’s delight.

“The New Earth” is set primarily in the spring and summer of 2018. The Wilcoxes are a family in name only, rotating in and out of their apartment in the majestic Apthorp building, drifting further and further apart. Alexander, or Sandy, a lawyer and Midwesterner who shed his gentile background, is despondent, near-suicidal over his failing marriage and “the full catastrophe” of recent history. His estranged wife, Naomi, a Columbia geophysicist on leave, hunkers down in her Cape Cod lab with Tilda, her stoic lesbian lover. Their 38-year-old son, Patrick, nicknamed Trick, has pursued a monastic life in Nepal and Berlin, hoarder of his own secrets. Winter, a pregnant immigration lawyer, is the family’s superego, based in the Providence fixer-upper she shares with her fiance, Zeno, an undocumented Mexican contractor and the son of an academic. There’s one other Wilcox, Bering, whose absence is the black hole around which her parents and siblings orbit.

Although spread out and isolated from each other, the Wilcoxes share a bubble of self-regard; they’re right-thinking, sanctimonious Manhattanites who drop Harvard and Yale and “genius” in casual conversation. Barack Obama is their political hero. They drive Priuses. They have limited contact with working-class people from all backgrounds — racial, socioeconomic, geographic, educational — although they could easily hop an A or 2/3 train to canvass the outer boroughs for themselves. And what of the country beyond the Acela Corridor? There could be monsters (and Nazis and MAGA-ites). The struggles of poor and middle-class Americans — from Tennessee to Texas, Nebraska to Nevada — never ping their radar. Red states are for losers.

“The New Earth” follows the template of Jonathan Franzen’s social-novels-cum-family-sagas, such as “Crossroads” or “The Corrections,” sprinkled (it must be said) with Woody Allen’s twitchy comedy. Row’s up to splendid mischief. Although raised by a conventional Jewish couple in Armonk, north of New York City, Naomi was the product of a one-night stand between her mother and a Black scientist. She had hidden this fact from her children until after 9/11. Bering — named for the Alaskan climate change research that clinched her mother’s fame — had flinched in the face of warring identities. Jewish, affluent and now Black, she’d decided to check her privilege. As the intifada escalated, she donned a kaffiyeh and moved to a craggy village in the West Bank, encroached upon by hostile Israeli settlers. During a protest, she was picked off by an Israel Defense Forces sniper. The Wilcoxes, already fraying, shredded like the Oslo accords.

From this event, Row conducts a fireworks show forward, backward and sideways, kindled by Winter’s upcoming wedding. Leftist purity tests, a Buddhist commune, a cache of unsent emails, an incestuous obsession: All are grist for his mill. For the most part, the Wilcoxes parrot the views of their peers. In truth, they know little about the diverse politics of people of color, the perils that confront the proletariat. (For Zeno, a date with doom is just a door-knock away.) With surgical precision and raucous glee, Row flays his characters and exposes their smugness.

But “The New Earth” isn’t mere satire; Row retains a deep affection for his cast, arguably more than they deserve. He breathes wondrous life into them. Their neuroses — so many neuroses — click into place. Each character’s thoughts scamper like mice through mazes, a science experiment gone wrong, and yet the data they yield bolsters a tale that’s both experimental and Balzacian, lighthearted and dead serious. No small feat.

Row’s omniscient narrator occasionally comments on, and to, “the novel,” as though the form itself is a master puppeteer: “Is political radicalism, among hopelessly naïve privileged people, always a performance, is it always done as a kind of entertainment. Or: when a marriage ends, is there ever one wronged party. They are driving toward this question, literally driving into it, following the novel’s dictates … like the clauses of this sentence, a helpless spiral.” A device too clever by half? Maybe, but it nonetheless offers some relief from these claustrophobic relationships.

Row runs the risk of piling up too many teetering Big Themes, but the narrative’s assured flow mostly buoys him (and us). He boldly targets intractable issues. A lasting peace may not be an option for the Wilcoxes, but anything is possible on the global stage, if citizens can reject apathy and xenophobia to grasp the tools at hand. Keep hope alive.

Hamilton Cain, a former finalist for a National Magazine Award, is a book critic and the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes from a Southern Baptist Upbringing.” He lives in Brooklyn.

The New Earth

By Jess Row

Ecco. 573 pp. $32.99

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