Classic Novels

THE CHOSEN by Chaim Potok

I haven’t met a lot of out-and-out unrepentant villains in my life. Some people I know started out with good intentions and got bitter. Some grew up hungry and never got over it. Yet popular fiction (including films) tends to favor the elemental, black-and-white, good-versus-evil conflict, winding the audience up until they’re ready to kill the bad guys with their own hands and teeth, building to a loud and bloody climax.

Nothing could be farther from the plot of THE CHOSEN. Potok gives us two fathers and two sons, each of whom is trying with all his heart to be the best person he can be, not just for himself or his family, but for the world. And all of them inflict terrible pain on each other.

Reuven, the narrator, is the son of a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi in Brooklyn, where he attends high school in the early days of World War II. In the course of a baseball game (fast pitch softball, to be precise), Reuven’s life intersects that of Danny Saunders, the son of a revered Hasidic rabbi. Both boys are gifted Talmudic scholars, Reuven by choice, Danny because his father’s position is hereditary, and he has no alternative.

Reb Saunders, Danny’s father, is physically intimidating, emotionally distant, brilliant, and demanding. His belief in his own correctness is as unswerving as his faith in ”the Master of the Universe.” Danny, equally stubborn, is drawn to psychology, a subject considered irrelevant at best to the Hasidim. He is reduced to keeping his studies secret from his father, and he’s helped by an unexpected ally.

In the course of the novel, we see through these characters’ eyes as the Holocaust is revealed, as the Zionist movement takes off, as the State of Israel is established. Danny and Reuven end up on opposite sides of the struggle between supporters of a religious versus secular state, a struggle that turns heated and finally violent. Because we are so invested in the characters, the political becomes personal for the reader as well, not least when the last revelations come out in the final pages.

Potok writes cleanly, vividly, and informatively, though at times he overuses oral formula, as when repeatedly describing the Hasidic traditional dress: “the dark suit, the dark skullcap, the white shirt open at the collar, and the fringes showing below the jacket.” The effect may be less than Homeric, but it does add a certain epic weight to the narrative.

Speaking of those final pages—bring Kleenex. Bring lots of Kleenex.

Contemporary Novels

BE SAFE I LOVE YOU by Cara Hoffman

If you had asked me on page 75 what this novel was about, I would have said, “I don’t know. This solider, Lauren, comes home from Iraq. She’s really close to her younger brother. Her father is this old hippie who can barely take care of himself. She has vague plans to meet up with a guy named Daryl that she knew in the service.” But that isn’t a story, that’s background. There are a few omens. She is perhaps a little too sure that she is squared away and in control. When violence erupts on page 77, it is precise and shocking and forced me to rethink everything I knew about Lauren Clay and where this novel was going.

And that’s about all I’m going to say about plot and story. If I even tried to pigeonhole BE SAFE into a genre, I would be spoiling the ride. This is one of those cases where I have to say, “Trust me. You need to read this book.”

The friend who recommended BE SAFE to me compared it to the work of Megan Abbott, and that’s certainly a place to start. Both are great with family drama, both are unflinching in talking about teenagers, both are skilled at making you care for the imaginary beings that inhabit their novels. Hoffman in addition is a world class stylist, clean, clear, evoking scenes in pointillist detail, like this description of the airport where Lauren has just landed in the US after nine months in the desert:

Christmas music played from speakers mounted near the cameras beside the baggage claim. Beyond the sliding-glass doors rain baptized those who ran from the curb to meet their friends and relatives in the roped-off lobby beneath a faded blue and white sign reading simply: ARRIVALS. They came in dripping, disheveled, their faces shining or makeup running as they embraced and balanced packages and bags.

Lauren, ever vigilant, would of course notice the cameras right away. She would also see the cold rain as a blessing after all that heat and sand. Yet the roped-off lobby also separates Lauren from the other travelers, driving home the fact that nobody (by her choice) is there to meet her. The plain language goes down like cool water, not drawing attention to the heavy lifting it’s doing in the background, every choice of detail telling us a little more about who Lauren is.

And that question–who is she, really?–is what the book is about. It’s the question that her fate, and her brother’s, rests on. It’s to Hoffman’s immense credit that, right up to the final paragraphs, I didn’t know what the answer was going to be, and that I was stunned by how satisfying and believable that answer was.

I should stop here, but I feel compelled to point out that there is a lot of weeping in this novel. One person or another had tears streaming down his or her face for the latter part of it. (Oddly, this is the second book I’ve read this month with that problem.) The danger, of course, is that the characters do the crying for the reader, and pre-empt the reader’s own tears.

I cried anyway. This is an amazing, important book.

Historical Fiction

THE BOOK OF BUNK by Glen Hirshberg

The BOOK OF BUNK is labyrinthine, in the best Borgesian sense, with fictional towns within fictional towns, fictional characters portraying fictional characters in a sort of live action RPG before such things existed, all of that layered over “real” places and people and events that seem fictitious–none more so than the Federal Writer’s Project of the 1930s.

The FWP was part of Roosevelt’s New Deal and used government funds to support out-of-work writers (and researchers and editors) during the Great Depression. Though highly controversial at the time, much of the work produced under its auspices, particularly the slave narratives and the travel guides, is now considered a vital contribution to US history.

That’s just the background. The real story is the relationship between the two brothers Dent: Paul, the narrator, in his late teens, asthmatic, compassionate, and withdrawn; and Lewis, four years older and everything that Paul is not—a charismatic, reckless con man. After their widowed father dies in Blackcreek, Oklahoma, Paul hops a freight headed east. In his boxcar he meets a mysterious woman named Grace and an infant called “the Patrol.” Grace recruits Paul as a researcher for the FWP and sends him off to Trampleton, in the western mountains of North Carolina. Trampleton, like the town of Asheville that it resembles, is located in Buncombe County, from which the noun “bunk,” meaning nonsense, is derived. Asheville is “real” and Trampleton is fictional.

Between his reclusive nature and the town’s hostility toward strangers, Paul’s progress is predictably slow, and it’s no help that his brother Lewis has followed him to North Carolina and seems to be romantically involved with Grace. As Paul becomes increasingly attracted to a young local woman, he finds he has a rival in the disturbed and violent orphan Danny, who’s been her protector since they were both children.

In time Paul does begin to penetrate the secrets of Trampleton, secrets that involve racism, arson, and an imaginary mirror-land called Bunk County that has begun to bleed into the novel’s reality.

The book’s subtitle is “A Fairy Tale of the Federal Writers’ Project,” a description that made me fear I was going to encounter elves or sorcerers or the dreaded “magical realism.” Nothing could be further from the truth. This is realism at its best, with instantly memorable characters, vivid settings, and arduous research that seems effortless on the page. The dialog sparkles, and Hirshberg trusts us to interpret it for ourselves. For example, when the boxcar that holds Paul, Grace, and “the Patrol” begins to slow, Paul asks if they should hide. “Grace swept her gaze over the virtually empty car, her kicked-over apple basket, the kid’s ball of blankets. ‘Okay, Paul,’ she said. ‘I’ll count to ten.’”

Hirshberg’s descriptions of nature are lovely: “Overhead, the branches fanned open, carving the sky into a thousand blue cross-hatched fragments. Giant bud-clusters hung up there like beehives suspended in the eaves, and from them came a deep and constant rustling.”

To this formal elegance, Hirshberg adds the energy of big ideas. Plenty of writers have explored the fine line between truth and fiction, history and bunkum, but here the stakes are life and death. A practical joke becomes a fraud, the fraud becomes a tragedy. Famous writers are made and broken. Communities are created from dust and to dust they return, taking something priceless from the “real” world when they go. And just when we think we’ve seen it all, here comes the House Un-American Activities Committee to reenact the lies and innuendo of Bunk County on a national stage.

As far as I can tell, THE BOOK OF BUNK was printed only in a limited edition of 400 (plus 15 lettered copies) back in 2010. Time for somebody (New York Review of Books?) to step up and put it back in print for good.