On the Bookshelf
More than ever before, universities seem to be churning out precocious novelists with impeccable credentials. The British wunderkind Adam Thirlwell demonstrates the breadth of his scholarly reading in The Escape (FSG, April), as Tablet’s Adam Kirsch has noted, with a wide range of literary allusions and a loving pastiche of past masters. In this case, Thirlwell’s primary models are Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, and his protagonist is an aging British Jew, whose tale of erotic misadventures is related by a mysterious narrator much closer to Thirlwell’s own age.
Thirlwell’s literary sophistication should not be surprising, given his academic pedigree—he won prizes at Oxford and a prestigious postgraduate fellowship from All Soul’s College—but on this side of the Atlantic, an author’s Ivy League degree does not necessarily imply scholarly erudition. In fact, the key element in Simon Rich’s Ivy education was surely not any course he took, but his tenure as president of the Harvard Lampoon. He brings impressive comedy chops to his first novel, Elliot Allagash (Random, May): son of the New York Times’s Frank and brother of novelist Nathaniel, Rich writes for Saturday Night Live and has published two truly hilarious humor collections (one piece features a kid whose mnemonic devices for AP calculus include phrases like “Stab and Obliterate the Hebrews, Crucify All the Hebrews . . .”). The novel centers on a New York prep school shlemiel named Seymour Herson who is lured into dreams of grandeur by a transfer student so rich that he cannot be expelled no matter his transgressions.
Another Harvard-educated comedian, Teddy Wayne, debuts as a novelist this spring with Kapitoil (Harper Perennial, April). Having distinguished himself with McSweeney’s pieces ranging from pitch-perfect parodies (see “Johnson’s Life of Boswell”) and “Awkward Interloper of the Realm”) to cutting satires of the contemporary writing life (“Feedback From James Joyce’s Submission of Ulysses to His Creative-Writing Workshop”), Wayne focuses the new novel on a Qatari’s arrival in New York in those carefree days when the Y2K bug was the worst threat hanging over New York City. (It’s the same time period, loyal Tablet readers should note, as the Memphis sections of Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi (May, Algonquin)—the beginning of which has, of course, appeared serially right here.) The child of a couple of secular humanist New York Jews, Wayne says he has less in common with his Muslim hero than with the novel’s love interest, whom a Forward blogger calls a “surprisingly likeable Jewess.”
As the son of bestselling authors Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, it is impressive that Jesse Kellerman—who, like Rich and Wayne, also holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard—has managed to established himself as more than just his parents’ literary heir, and more than just a genre writer. (Not that there’s anything wrong with writing a successful genre novel, or with family resemblances, for that matter; like his mother’s, Kellerman’s novels often include some sort of Jewish angle.) Kellerman’s fourth novel, The Executor (Putnam, April) is winning plaudits as a “stunning novel of psychological suspense” and “an extraordinarily complex and ambitious piece of work residing inside what seems at first blush nothing more than a typical crime novel”. It concerns a faltering graduate student in philosophy who signs on as a conversation partner for an aging widow, and soon finds himself in over his head.
The two novellas published together as Feeding Mrs. Moskowitz and The Caregiver (Syracuse, April) similarly concern young people who care for the elderly; just don’t expect these stories to maintain the tension of a Kellermanesque thriller. Written by sisters Barbara Pokras, a film editor, and Fran Pokras Yariv, a screenwriter and novelist, the complementary stories explore the indignities of aging and the charms of the aged.
Like the Kellerman family, Frank Tallis writes psychological thrillers, and like Jonathan Kellerman, he practices as a clinical psychologist. His recurring sleuth, Max Liebermann, applies the new science of psychiatry under the influence of Freud in 1903 Vienna, a milieu in which Zionism, psychoanalysis, and some of the most virulent anti-Semitism of the 20th century flourished. The fourth of Tallis’s Liebermann books, Vienna Secrets (Random, April) features anti-Semites, Hasids, adepts of Kabbalah, and plenty of fresh corpses—as well as a useful historical appendix surveying Freud’s attitudes toward Jewishness.
Joseph Wallace’s Diamond Ruby (Touchstone, May), like Tallis’s novels, features a number of cameos by historical personalities including Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey. The novel can effectively be described as A League of Their Own meets The Golem’s Mighty Swing meets Mr. Vertigo: in it, a young half-Jewish, half-Irish girl turns out to have a pitching arm as strong as any in the majors. Starting out as a sideshow attraction, she soon gets mixed up with promoters, gangsters, and, of course, the hardworking folks at the Ku Klux Klan.
Go figure: less than a year after the publication of a wonderful, massive, epic novel about the fates of Jews in World War II-era Hungary—Joseph Kertes’ Gratitude, which won the most recent National Jewish Book Award for Fiction—news arrives of a soon-to-be-published, wonderful, massive, epic novel about . . . the fates of Jews in World War II-era Hungary: Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge (Knopf, May). This might be the literary version of the phenomenon that ushered Antz and A Bug’s Life onto movie screens almost simultaneously, but it is far less annoying: why not have two novels on this subject, if they’re as thoughtful and readable as these, written by authors this talented? It might be bizarre that Kertes and Orringer tread such similar ground in rather similar ways—for one thing, both books begin with epigraphs from Miklós Radnóti—but could we ever truly have too many excellent novels about the descent into madness of one of the most cultured and sophisticated communities in Europe?