Feelings of powerlessness

Fallenberg is a fearless writer; particularly on the vulnerability and rawness of desire

'The Parting Gift' (photo credit: Courtesy)
'The Parting Gift'
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Evan Fallenberg knows what it’s like to lose yourself to someone else; the delirium and danger that accompanies obsessive love. His writing feels like he is drawing upon this from personal experience. The kind of physical love that renders one speechless – and annihilates the world that surrounds it.
Fallenberg’s new intoxicating novel, The Parting Gift, is about a 28-year-old unnamed narrator and his treacherous love affair with Uzi. Uzi is a 40-year-old twice married and divorced father of five not prone to introspection of any kind. He runs a spice-growing business somewhere near the highway that runs south along the Mediterranean coast and ends in Tel Aviv.
The book begins by our narrator attempting to describe his now defunct affair to Adam, his old friend from graduate school. The fact that he is staying with Adam in the United States, and sitting close to him while he writes this long letter adds to the dramatic tension that never lightens. It builds in intensity as we enter his tortured mind.
We learn little about his old friend Adam, other than his general goodness, and his marriage to his beloved Beth, and a certain condescension our narrator feels towards him for his ingrained passivity and complicity that mingles with some sort of latent attraction to him.
Adam represents to our narrator a man castrated by life’s demands; a life he shuns; even though there are still parts of him that want to explain to Adam what has led him so far afield.
Our narrator is still obsessed with Uzi, his past lover, and the world he left behind in Israel when the affair imploded. He fancies himself an adventurer of sorts; someone capable of making split-second decisions that lead him into foreign realms. He is a restless seeker of sorts; not for God or repentance of any kind; but for an intensity of feeling that escapes most lives. It is the ordinary life that terrifies him; and watching Adam sit placidly as he writes his confessional treatise, he is filled with thoughts that the ordinary is all Adam has ever known or sought.
He believes that even this ordinariness will eventually collapse upon Adam and warns him about the smug sense of security he clings to with Beth.
“Promises will be broken and vows will be trampled and feelings will be hurt-oh-far worse than that,” he writes. “Where love is concerned, the rules are not written in books of statutes, but they exist all the same, and they are unbending.” He believes even Adam’s steady universe will eventually shatter despite his best efforts to salvage it. It is just a matter of time.
Therefore, why not throw all caution the wind? He explains to Adam his attraction to Uzi: “I don’t know what it was that I found so riveting, but I clearly couldn’t stop watching him touch himself.
When he was done, he tossed the shirt over his head and his naked chest disappeared behind a faded green T-shirt with a logo I couldn’t read.”
The sex they soon had was rough and passionate.
He learns Uzi was a descendant of hearty Russian stock; someone generally able to possess or control what he felt entitled to; a male prerogative everywhere; but Uzi took it to another level. He didn’t need any friends and his ex-wives and children found him exasperating. Our narrator; someone who always prided himself on his sexual prowess and his sense of control in bed with others found himself falling in line with Uzi’s dominance; embracing a submissiveness that was new to him but titillating and consuming.
He feels himself melting away; considering the notion that this must be how women feel most of the time; something he had never thought about before. There is a powerlessness to this; but also something seductive about it; a sense of vulnerability he likes at first; it is new territory for him. He is concerned by how little he and Uzi speak; it isn’t that Uzi doesn’t listen to him in bed; he does; but there is something about conversation of all kinds that has become demeaned somehow; worthless and banal. Uzi never asks him about his past life or current concerns and says little about his own.
As the fog lifts, he ingratiates himself into Uzi’s life; befriending his ex-wives and children whom he charms and pleases much in the manner of a 1950’s housewife. He listens to one of his most troubled daughters talk about her problems with eating properly and tries to encourage her not to starve herself as she seems intent upon doing. He enlists her help cooking meals for a cookbook he is planning to use to increase the sales of Uzi’s herb-growing business. He listens to Uzi’s exwives, sympathizing with their problems with their children and finding new men, and gains their trust.
But the feelings of powerlessness that were once pleasing to him when their affair began start to frighten him.
Uzi pays him nothing for all his considerable efforts, and worse, he suspects Uzi has found another man; and begins following him hoping to catch him in the act. The end game is never made clear, but what is evident is he is starting to unravel; what moral compass he possessed has shattered into smithereens and he starts to try to hurt Uzi any way he can.
He plots elaborate deceptions, spies on his phone, and turns on the daughter he once embraced with tenderness in a cruel and sadistic manner that has severe consequences for her. He humiliates one of Uzi’s sons in an unforgettable fashion. These are innocent victims and yet we hear no remorse from him. They are extensions of Uzi and if he can get at them, maybe he can get at Uzi. He wants revenge and we are uncertain at what point he will stop. Or if he can stop.
He considers talking to Uzi, but knows he will be met with silence and simmering anger, and instead keeps breathing in the toxicity that has embraced them as a couple while still making love to him, cooking his meals, and tending to the business. He keeps planning ways to make Uzi crack, even while recognizing that Uzi, by his very nature, is uncrackable. He simply is a force of nature that never questions his actions. Or has any regrets. Or shows love or tenderness to the children he has wrought. Or to anyone really. He is a physical being. An unquestioning man filled with carnal desires he feels entitled to indulge.
It was this primitiveness that attracted our narrator in the first place. He recognizes that even expecting Uzi’s loyalty is foolhardy; but he is unstoppable.
Fallenberg is a fearless writer; particularly on the vulnerability and rawness of desire. His crisp taut sentences compel us to keep reading and our displeasure with the narrator’s recklessness dissipates as he forces us to become co-conspirators in his revenge. We find ourselves lost; just as he is lost; but we are as helpless as he is in stopping ourselves from finding out just how far he will go.
The author is a master at the humiliation that can destroy love and ignite primal hatreds; the sense of mortal injury that overtakes the scorned, but he is equally good at describing the euphoria and inexplicability of such relationships; the elation and delirium that accompanies them.
Readers who have fallen prey to the overwhelming seductions of someone else and then to the destruction that often follows will recognize shadows of themselves in Fallenberg’s seemingly confessional prose. The confusion and the hurt and the self-righteousness and the longing that lingers long after it makes little sense for it to do so. The stubborn feeling that these burning memories will never recede from one’s consciousness but simply be replayed on a loop in one’s brain, mocking all future entanglements.
His past works, Light Fell, and When We Danced on Water, both critically acclaimed works, also delve into the world of transgressive acts and the fall-out that follows.
Fallenberg is a native of Ohio who moved to Israel in 1985. He grew up in an assimilated Jewish home and admits to suffering through his childhood with an overactive imagination and a propensity for lying that often got him into hot water. He has spent much of his 57 years writing and translating Hebrew novels into English to much acclaim, and teaching and writing. He was married to his wife for over 19 years and is the father of two sons; but left the marriage for a man he had been in love with for over a decade; an experience he has written about. He traces the intensity of his love for Israel to his beloved grandmother Esther Gressel Fallenberg Messnick, a fervent Zionist who died several years ago at 96.