An Appetite for Reading

An article in Issue 23, March 3, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A spy tale featuring a ravenous protagonist dominates some recent fiction offerings Short story collections, books from tiny publishers, tales set in obscure communities or subcultures, novels translated from funny languages like Dutch - all of these have difficulty finding wide readership in English. Several just such books, all dealing with Jews, appeared in recent months and remain lurking under the horizon - some deservedly so, some decidedly not. Among the best of these is Leon de Winter's "Hoffman's Hunger," originally published in Dutch in 1990, a bestseller in that language and in German and only now available in English. De Winter, 54, is a novelist and filmmaker born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Amsterdam, who now divides his time between The Netherlands and the U.S. "Hoffman," the author's best-known work, is one of that rare breed, a taut espionage story that successfully enfolds philosophical, psychological and political themes (think Conrad, Greene, Le Carre). In this instance, the eponymous central character is Felix Hoffman, a Dutch diplomat posted in Prague just before the fall of Communism. Hoffman is a man of multiple agonies: He lost his parents to the Holocaust and his own children as well, one daughter to cancer, the second to a fate that must be among the worst a father can ever experience, something that "reared up savagely and scourged him with lashes that had shaken him to the depths of his soul." Add to this a rocky marriage and a stumbling career and Hoffman is one pitiful protagonist. Hoffman consoles himself by reading, or trying to read, Spinoza, and by the constant consumption of any edible he can lay his hands on: "… the snacks he would occasionally help himself to at night had begun to grow into complete meals, compiled from whatever happened to be in his large Whirlpool refrigerator… He would put away entrées and desserts and entire TV-dinners; sitting in front of the television, which went on all through the night, he would demolish plate loads of food with a rapacious hunger. This kind of hunger had been born thousands of years before, when the first human being had walked the earth, when the words 'hunger' and 'fear' were one. In his bloated body, he felt like the first man who had stood upright on the African savannah and, rising above the grass, was punished by the absence of God." Hoffman's existential predicament would be sufficient to fuel a fine novel, but de Winter won't let him - or us - off that easily. Into the mix the author contributes a deliciously devious espionage plot that includes the Czech secret service, the CIA, a femme fatale, a double and possibly triple agent and a 400-pound American laundromat magnate, who, if anything, can outeat Hoffman. I don't want to spoil de Winter's cunning story, which incidentally is quite spoiled on the book's back cover. Enough to say that, plot aside, I found myself by book's end genuinely moved. Bottom line: Don't read the blurb, but do read "Hoffman's Hunger." The great wave of Jewish immigrants to New York's Lower East Side in the late 19th and early 20th centuries proved a rich subject for writers of both fiction and nonfiction, and to some extent still does. Ellen Litman, who emigrated from Moscow to the United States in 1992, captures a smaller, lesser known moment in the history of wandering Jews. Her topic is the most recent emigration of Russian Jews to America. Different times. Different circumstances. Different Jews. Litman's Jews haven't settled on the Lower East Side; nor have they gone to Brooklyn's Brighton Beach. Her characters have ventured beyond New York. Today virtually every U.S. city of any size - not just Los Angeles and Chicago but also Houston, Detroit, Miami, Cincinnati and St. Louis - has its own little Moscow-on-the-Whatever. Litman's particular focus group is Moscow-on-the-Monongehela, better known as Pittsburgh's venerable Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. These Jews are not your humble Yiddish speakers of the 1900s any more than they are your noble refuseniks of the 1970s. These are strictly economic refugees of the late 1980s and 1990s, families fleeing the collapsing Russian economy in pursuit of advanced computer degrees and improved earning power. These Jews haven't suffered any persecution for their religion - they essentially have no religion - and Israel never appears as even the tiniest of blips on their emotional radar. Their only connection with Jewishness is via the local agencies that provide their subsidized apartments, English lessons, job counseling, medical care and lunches at the Jewish community center. While Litman's characters may be wholeheartedly materialistic, they still merit sympathy. The immigrant's life is rarely an easy one. As amply documented in these stories, adjustment is difficult, self-esteem suffers, parents become dependent on their children. Former lab technicians become housecleaners, engineers turn grease monkeys, teachers remain uncertified and unemployed. Marriages fray. Men drink. Women become ill or crazy or both. And the kids too often fall in with the wrong crowd. Litman's even dozen of stories in no way constitutes the novel promised in the book's subtitle - saying so doesn't make it so - but there is a kind of fitful progression from first story to last. The stories dealing with teenagers are less interesting than those dealing with the adults and the elderly - that's one of the problems of being teenagers - but it is interesting to watch characters reappear periodically in new stages of their bumpy lives. By the final story, which bears the ironic title "Home," we even get a glimmer of hope that things more or less might work out for these immigrants: "They weren't great dancers, especially Zhenechka, who'd always been a little lumpish, and also nearsighted. But you could tell he was doing his best. He held Lariska tenderly and tried not to step on the edges of her dress, and whenever he blundered, she smiled at him. They were trying. And maybe not everything was a mistake. Maybe we had learned something, and next time we'd do a little better, if only we gave it a chance..." Litman writes a clean if obviously workshopped prose (she's earned a degree in creative writing at Syracuse University), she's really bad at titles, and she rather endearingly still has to learn her U.S. geography (characters drive west from Pittsburgh to Boston). Yet Litman clearly has a writer's eye and a writer's heart. This respectable debut collection promises even better things. Despite the WASPish name (we are none of us responsible for our names), John J. Clayton for decades has been doggedly writing stories about Jews. The characters in Clayton's fiction are almost always contemporary American tribalists who live largely secular, professional lives but who either "return" to some degree of religious observance or feel vaguely that they should be doing so. Usually their spouses, children and friends don't know what to make of these religious impulses. So it is with Michael Kuperman, the protagonist of Clayton's third novel (following "What Are Friends For?" published in 1979, and "The Man I Never Wanted To Be," 1998). "Kuperman's Fire" is arguably Clayton's most ambitious work to date. The plot concerns Michael Kuperman, a Boston-based high-tech entrepreneur who discovers that a chemical firm with which his company is about to enter into a major partnership is secretly exporting the juices used to manufacture weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, Michael's beloved mother dies and his cranky bohemian father suddenly reveals long-held dark secrets. At the same time, Michael's icy wife is contemplating an affair. At the same time, Michael's teenage daughter is making goo-goo eyes at the son of Michael's African-American business partner. Oh, and yes, all this same time, Michael is turning increasingly religious, exasperating mother, father, wife, daughter, partner and perhaps the reader as well. Just in case that isn't busy enough for you, we also have a couple of murders, a kidnapping or two, the Kuperman family hiding out in the hasidic enclaves of deepest Brooklyn, the threatened gassing of a synagogue full of Jews, a spectacular commando raid and shootout on the streets of New York, lots of Holocaust anguish and a friendly dybbuk who occasionally inhabits our hero. I didn't buy any of it, but if you feel you might, I also have a bridge I'd like you to bid on. Still, I have to admit it was great fun, in a louche sort of way. The Michael Kuperman prototype meanwhile reappears in numerous guises in "Wrestling with Angels," the weighty retrospective that the normally perspicacious Toby Press for some reason has seen fit to publish. Not that the nearly three dozen stories in this 600-page collection are bad; it's just that none of them is especially memorable. Almost all of these stories originally appeared over the past quarter-century in microscopic magazines like Agni and Shenandoah and Georgia Review (a few first saw the light in Commentary and at least one in Esquire). All of them have that style-less style common to much of today's literary magazine fiction, and most of the stories deal with variations on the Kuperman character - young and restless lawyers, architects, professors, business executives, usually from the Boston area and usually with parental and/or spousal problems. Most of all, these Kuperman clones ache over some spirituality lacking in their comfortable American lives. Many stories, such as "The Contract," circle around profound questions like, Why does God allow cancer? In "History Lessons," it's Why does prejudice exist? It's not terribly surprising that we don't get profound answers. Instead we get numerous variations on a theme, always earnest, frequently sentimental, too often diagrammatic and programmatic. The characters' dilemmas invariably read like they arise not out of their inner lives but out of their author's calculations and manipulations. Maybe - and this is a highly qualified maybe - "Wrestling with Angels" is more palatable in individual samplings. But served up in their dozens, the bulk made my eyes glaze over. Canadian visual artist Eldon Garnet sets an enticing plot in motion in his novel, "Lost Between the Edges," in which a University of Toronto graduate student identified only as X firebombs the headquarters of Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel (a real-life creature who is currently serving a five-year prison sentence in Germany). The book climaxes with a bloody free-for-all between neo-Nazis and anti-racism activists at Toronto's Christie Pits park, a scene that echoes a real gang-fight between Nazi sympathizers and Jews at the same site in 1933. As noted, all very enticing stuff. But Garnet's narrative is severely undermined by characters lacking any shred of inner life, as well as by numbingly lengthy anti-Semitic screeds ripped from the Internet (Zundel's website, "The Turner Diaries," David Irving's testimony at Zundel's trial). Then there's Garnet's quirky use of colons: They come at any moment, his numerous "artistic" (read out-of-focus) photographs, and on virtually every page the misprints, misspellings and plain illiteracies. Of these last, for example: "looses his balance," "kicking him in the groan," and "Nazi hoard." My favorite errors, however, are the references to the late Rabbi Meir Kahane as "Kahone," a misspelling that might nonetheless please his Spanish admirers. • Contributing editor Matt Nesvisky frequently writes about books. An article in Issue 23, March 3, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.