This fall when Philip Rothtold an interviewerthat he’d stopped writing novels, the commentaries that surged forth might as well have been obituaries. Which writer would continue to honor well-made sentences? Who would capture America’s roiling moral anxiety? And was there anybody left who could do it through tormented, sex-obsessed Jewish men?
For those who feel needled by those questions, Jay Neugeboren’s “The Other Side of the World” might be the tonic they’re hoping for. Neugeboren has written in relative obscurity for decades — this is his 18th book — but the linguistic precision, wry humor and libidinal neurosis contained in his fine new novel put him in good company with the recently retired master.
The half-intellectual, half-rake aspect of the story’s hero, Charlie, certainly has a familiar, Rothian cast. He’s just returned home to Northampton, Mass., from Singapore, where he’s spent three years sowing his oats and making a bundle working for a palm-oil company run by Nick, a college buddy. The job was pitched to him as a green-energy gig, but Charlie, the son of a novelist and literary scholar, knows nonsense when he hears it: The deforestation of Borneo was “more damaging to the climate than any benefits that might be gained by switching to biofuels made from palm oil.”
That’s the least of his moral quandaries. First, Charlie is implicated in Nick’s death. Second, back in the States, he begins his journey of personal reckoning by stealing away his father’s young girlfriend, Seana, who’s written two best-selling novels: one about a woman who gets away with murder, the other an incest tale “that had a deliciously happy ending.”
The setup is plastic and absurd. (And we haven’t even gotten to the bit when Charlie, Seana and Nick’s widow smoke pot that is dusted with Nick’s ashes.) But that sense of unreality is deliberate and gives the story urgency and energy. There’s a comic glint to Neugeboren’s take on heavy issues — noblesse oblige, anti-Semitism, environmental exploitation, our hunger for parenthood — that doesn’t diminish their seriousness.
“The Other Side of the World” is relatively short, and its action is limited: It’s effectively about a road trip Charlie and Seana take from Massachusetts to her family’s home in Brooklyn. Yet the mood feels epic. Neugeboren’s invocations of classic writers bolster the sense of gravitas: James, Waugh, Greene and, yes, Roth. Neugeboren returns again and again to the notion that writing is not only how we make sense of the world but how we make it, period. As Charlie’s dad, the book’s moral anchor, says, “If there is such a thing as love, maybe it shows itself forth in stories and in who we choose to tell them to — in the way we exchange stories of our lives with others.”
There’s a serious downside to Neugeboren’s high-mindedness: the sense that every woman in the novel, from Charlie’s Singapore consorts to Nick’s ex, is at least a little crazy, hard-wired to complicate and diminish the lives of men. Seana’s mercurial actions — exclamations, outrages, sudden demands — often strain credulity. The suggestion is that men tangle with the moral implications of their actions, while women simply invent the tangles.
If you can make your peace with that — Roth fans have — “The Other Side of the World” can charm you with its grace, intelligence and scope. “It is so difficult to do anything well in this mysterious world,” Charlie’s father tells him. He’s describing how badly he fell short as a parent, but he could also be summarizing the theme of this inventive novel.
Athitakis is a writer in Washington.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD
By Jay Neugeboren
Two Dollar Radio. 282 pp. Paperback, $16.50