Like a simile for redemption

In Joseph Kaufman’s Woodstock-era novel, four friends try to shake off the baggage of their youthful indiscretions.

February 19, 2010 17:31
4 minute read.
A scene from 'The Breakfast Club.'

the breakfast club 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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The Legend of Cosmo & the Archangel
By Joseph Kaufman | French Creek Press | 323 pages | $18

Reading The Legend of Cosmo & The Archangel is something like watching a double feature of The Breakfast Club and The Big Chill.

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Here is how its Woodstock-era protagonists are introduced: “Frankie [Francine] was the friendship’s academic, Dave its athlete, Cosmo its charm and Nick its conscience, Joey... its spokesman and capo régime.”

Nick’s breathtaking leap off a cliff to save his pal Cosmo from angry bikers earns him the “Archangel” epithet among the high-school quintet. Four years later, Joey alters the nickname to “Angel of Death” when Nick’s seeming indifference to having impregnated Frankie leads to her bloody death from a motel-room abortion.

An unforgiving Joey blackmails Cosmo – now a drug-addicted, AWOL Green Beret – into a vengeful international search for Nick. Aware that Joey wants him dead, Nick labors anonymously alongside Arab construction workers in Jerusalem, knowing that Joey will be thrown off track by the Irish assassin who earlier stole Nick’s identity. Over the next 25 years, Cosmo’s quest to find Nick parallels his lonely quest to find himself, while Nick undergoes a long, difficult redemption from the consequences of poor choices and circumstances.

The similarities between this novel and those two classic 1980s “buddies” films aren’t so much about plot as about feel. The book is written in a vibrant visual style that evinces the sensation of watching an absorbing movie. Kaufman achieves this effect through vivid verbs and the liberal use of similes and metaphors.

When the friends rescue Nick after his daring leap, Cosmo “tows” him to shore, Dave “hefts” him onto the granite and “invokes” the Holy Ghost; then “the friends covered him with clothes and huddled uneasily about him, like Amazon warriors trying to identify the magic that harmed their prince.” When Nick places a desperate phone call from a Howard Johnson’s, “spring wind luffing his hair, the smell of diesel across the yard,” the verbiage transports us to the scene.

The liveliness of Kaufman’s writing – and the unusual setting that places “Jewboy” Nick on the Palestinian side of the percolating intifada – no doubt contributed to the Jewish Book Council’s decision to name The Legend of Cosmo & The Archangel a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards.

Indeed, the author has a way with words – even if his penchant for laden adjectival phrases sometimes gets out of hand: Nick’s father exiles himself to a “Job-reading retreat.” Cosmo dreams of escaping from “asthma-making mildewed rooms.” The manner of Parisians grates on Cosmo “like a shrill, settlement-contesting ex-wife.” Nick happens upon a “crusader-old” monastery.

Colorful adjectives and similes provide the palette from which Kaufman paints full portraits of the two main protagonists, but they provide not much more than a rich veneer for the others. Dave is a pointless character, shallowly drawn as an NFL hunk (“clean-shaven and huge in his signature wraparound reflector shades, blond hair shag-cut like a model from GQ”) with an odd habit of spouting movie dialogue. The lack of depth afforded Joey leaves us surprised that he loved Frankie intensely enough to want to murder Nick.

However, the main story line – the personal evolutions of two long-estranged high-school blood brothers – is compelling. Nick is the contemplative, tragic hero, Cosmo the ne’er-do-well hedonist. On different continents and in different cultures, they struggle to overcome the inner forces keeping them from self-actualization. The question will be whether their bond might survive the rough voyage.

Nick’s years in Israel include initiations into the worlds of the enraged Arabs and the pious Jews whose impoverished Jerusalem neighborhoods are separated by little more than Highway 1. Half-Irish and half-Jewish, the redhead blends into neither world easily.

Kaufman brilliantly describes Nick’s first impression of the Talmud as “the yoke that broke your arrogance and crushed your ego which too often – speciously – whispered to you that you were so smart. It mocked your logic, conceptions of right and wrong, displayed such a reach of morality that by comparison you felt like Attila the Hun. It exposed your worst traits, rearranged your mind gratis, once in a while inspired you. It hove you to your learning partner, like kinsmen in a leaky boat.”

Upon Cosmo’s return from voluntary exile in Nepal, Kaufman describes him as over-stimulated, “like an Amish farmer’s first visit to town... He yearned for input and not nullity now, for a flow of information that might cascade through the void he carved from his ego. At the same time, confronted with civilization, he felt strangely sad: why bother with self-growth when you could more easily eat a steak?”

Because the author was, wisely, not averse to killing off characters like Frankie, it remains uncertain until the end whether Cosmo and the Archangel will live long enough to reunite, and whether Nick would anyway survive their reunion.

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