Trying to fill his father’s shoes

Spencer Wise’s debut novel features a fictionalized version of himself – a Jewish Bostonian living in China and working for his family’s footwear company.

Shoemaker (Illustrative) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Shoemaker (Illustrative)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Sometimes, first-time novelists hide behind their own fiction to protect themselves from difficult truths they are not yet willing to confront head-on. Spencer Wise seems to fall into this category.
A few years ago, he wrote a scathingly touching nonfiction essay about his conflicted but loving relationship with his father that revealed a raw and courageous authenticity that is missing from his promising first novel. His essay, “The Second-Worst Rug My Father’s Ever Seen,” told of a time when his father came to assist him at prep school where he was struggling with a course he was in danger of failing. His father stayed with him for several days, prodding him along to complete the assignments necessary to pass the course. By the time all was finished, he felt a strange mixture of resentment and gratitude towards his dad. Yet, there was something about his father’s assuredness and sustained attention toward him that moved him to write.
“Despite the meanness, which was false, simply a product of his exhaustion and my incompetency, there was something so enviable to me in a man who knew from birth that he would design, manufacture and sell shoes. Four generations deep of shoemakers – never a single doubt.”
But the family business held little allure for Wise – who was already leaning in another direction.
In his new work, The Emperor of Shoes, Wise attempts to explore similar terrain in fictional form. His narrator and apparent alter-ego, Alex Cohen, speaks to us in a first-person voice that sometimes feels forced. Alex is a confused young man uncertain about who he is and whom he wants to become. He has come to Guangdong in southern China from his home with his mother in Boston to join his father’s manufacturing business. He is the expected heir to a business dynasty that has lasted for many generations.
His father has spent the past several years living as a Jewish exile of sorts in a land still foreign to him. He resides in a fancy hotel where his every need and wish is tended to; bribes the local officials when he needs to; and carries on meaningless affairs with local Chinese women. He has high hopes to mold his son in his image but senses from the get-go a certain resistance in Alex that troubles him.
Alex harbors his own fantasies about changing the business his father runs so that it would enable him to design his own shoes and sell them under the family label, unlike the imitations his father has perfected and mass produces. But he is reticent to share his dreams with his father, whom he immediately senses has been running on auto-pilot for many years and is closed to his input.
Wise describes the elation and drive that laces the young man’s fantasies of one day being allowed to make his own mark in the world.
“I wanted to do something my father never could, because, smart as he was, he was a knockoff himself, a duplicate of duplicators. I wanted to design originals. Artisan leathers – kid and calf-skin – those delicate, soft, supple leathers Dad couldn’t handle. My own brand I wanted. Stop screwing around with table-runs of 60 percent C-grade hides. No more private labels. I saw my own designer brand on the floor at Nordstrom or even Neiman Marcus, under my name. Or some name. I’d find a name. I would try at least. And I figured if it got to be too much, if Dad wouldn’t let me breathe, well, I could pull the rip cord, escape if I needed to. I could always get the hell out.”
One evening, in a state of feverish creativity, Alex descends to the factory floor to create three magnificent shoe samples, and when the sun rises, he looks at his work and understands “what my father and great grandfather already knew: that making shoes was not practical or stylish. The right shoes give you a coherence, a purpose. The secret hand moving inside a puppet. They animate you, not the other way around. I got that now.”
But his father rebuffs his attempts to make changes of any kind, and he begins to realize that his father is an ancient relic from an earlier time; a Jewish man still constrained by the legacy of fear and self-consciousness that has haunted Jews for centuries. A man unable to change or hear or see what is really happening around him. He watches his father watching him and can sense what he is thinking: “I created you. Like how the old rabbis would mold a mystical golem to follow orders – I honestly think that’s how Dad saw fatherhood. And now he was worried that his divine creation was beginning to turn against him.”
Complicating things is Alex’s growing relationship with a factory girl named Ivy: an exquisitely beautiful Chinese woman with a mysterious past and trauma as deeply buried as his own. She is secretly an embedded organizer in the factory; part of a pro-democratic Chinese party operating within the plant to spark revolts among the workers who toil under heinous conditions. Alex comes to see the world around him through her eyes.
Wise’s novel has kernels of wondrousness woven throughout.
There are moving passages about his growing infatuation with the elegance of Chinese culture as well as his evolving grasp of the destructive force that unchecked capitalism and corruption have wrought upon the local citizenry. There are delightful meditations about his blossoming romance with Ivy. She shares with him her guilt about the sister she lost at Tiananmen Square where they were both protesting, convinced she could have done more to save her. He shares with her the agony of his mother’s struggle with mental illness and the humiliation he endured as a child when she forced him to travel everywhere with an open umbrella, certain the evil spirits were out to snatch him from her.
But ultimately, the crux of the novel rides on Wise’s ability to convince us that his alter-ego, Alex Cohen, has somehow found a way to master the difficult relationship between himself and his father. The author needs to show us how this more sensitive and thoughtful Jewish son can emerge from his father’s ominous shadow intact, and yet still remain connected to him and his own Jewish lineage. He must persuade us that Alex has found a way to live without his father whom he can no longer blindly obey, but also with him.
Wise attempts to enter this shaky realm, but seems to lose his courage midstream and falls instead upon stereotypical tropes and distraction. It prevents him from plunging deeper into the very messiness that he we sense he really wants to uncover. All of this sounds like the haunting gray matter of a future memoir that we sense is still bubbling up inside this talented author just waiting to be released. We hope he will do so.