The stories in Stuart Nadler’s new collection, The Book of Life, explore the inter-generational tensions of moody Jewish families burdened by memories, rifts, hopes, and deaths
“We were, by birth, all Jews, however unobservant or unfaithful, but on Christmas, with the entire state of Massachusetts closed down for business, we celebrated with a big family dinner.”
So says Charlie, a recovering alcoholic and screenwriter in “The Moon Landing,” one of eight evocative tales of loss that make up Stuart Nadler’s moving debut story collection, The Book of Life. The characterization aptly describes many Nadler characters, men and women in New England whose surnames—Horowitz, Cohen, Reinstein—are the most consistently Jewish thing about them. The book’s title invokes Yom Kippur and its essential wish to defer death, but endings—whether of life, love, or dreams—are what tie together its piercing stories.
Take Charlie. He has returned to Chestnut Hill, a well-to-do Boston suburb, to help his younger brother dispose of their late parents’ belongings. Both parents were alcoholics, and they died within days of one another. Charlie resents having to return from the faraway shelter he has built for himself in Los Angeles so soon after his mother’s funeral. He bristles at being home, feels guilty about his long absence, and recalls a childhood moment in 1969, when his mother took him to New York City to watch the ticker-tape parade for the Apollo II astronauts. Buoyed by her own excitement, his mother caroused with a stranger, losing her small son, who waited on a park bench for her to find him, crying and deflecting inquiries from concerned passers-by. Charlie’s mother, overtaken by her own childhood fantasies, had acted out resentfully at the accumulating responsibilities of mid-century motherhood. Years later, at her funeral, Charlie’s father whispered a line from Yeats’ poem “When You Are Old.” It’s a poignant way, perhaps the only possible one in this family whose relationships have been fractured by addiction and avoidance, of communicating caring.
In the story “Visiting,” by contrast, Jonathan Cohen fails to even look his dying father in the eye when he drives north from Manhattan to visit the old man in Warwick, R.I. Jonathan brings along his own estranged teenaged son, Marc. In the forced togetherness of the car ride, the adolescent smirks at his father’s inadequacies, though the child’s knowledge of them comes by way of his mother, Jonathan’s ex-wife. Marc softens toward his father when he learns why Jonathan left home at 18, never again speaking to his father, a Holocaust survivor who made his way in America as a fisherman. Once in front of his childhood home, Jonathan refuses to get out of the car to say hello, even while he seems to hold his father in a curious high regard, as a man who possesses a dignity that Jonathan feels he himself has always lacked. What’s troubling is the idea that the dignity derives from his hardness and his suffering. Jonathan’s father may have more to his character than that, but Nadler is stingy about sharing it. Instead, we are left feeling lightly stung by Jonathan’s enduring and pitiable sense of awe and inferiority.
In the bulk of these stories, the characters are in mid-life or younger and the Jewishness of their lives is limited. They are assimilated, aware of a more traditional past. Occasionally, a character returns to tradition, as does the college-aged son in “Winter on the Sawtooth,” though his return demonstrates less new-found faith than rebellion and a desire to become desirable to a classmate who is herself observant. More often, members of Nadler’s cast attend a Rosh Hashanah dinner or a bris, but they don’t carry on daily or weekly rituals as a matter of habit, and their personal relationships are hardly determined by religious affiliation. Moreover, the fact of being Jewish is frequently synonymous here with being a person of privilege from the Northeast. This is not an outlandish association, but it does feel slightly worn to a reader, like me, who happens to be Jewish and from the Northeast. But what can you do—our reading of any book is informed by our personal histories and though hints of stereotype pop up in this collection, its overall strength renders that weakness entirely negligible.
The one piece in Nadler’s collection to take up faith directly is “Beyond Any Blessing,” the final story. A searing heartbreaker (as can be said, frankly, about many of the works in this gripping collection), it tells the story of Daniel Feldman, a young married man who has driven to Brookline, Mass., to help Sy, his 90-year-old grandfather. Sy is a rabbi whose congregation has been trying to evict him for 20 years from the synagogue-owned house he has occupied throughout his career. Seesawing between the present—which includes Daniel’s reunion with his first love, Shari Levinson—and scenes from a tragic childhood in which Daniel’s parents were killed on Cape Cod, the story follows the evolution of the complicated love and sense of mutual responsibility shared by the two men, while also ably portraying the humiliations endured by the elderly.
Nadler ends the story with Sy’s proof of God’s existence: his sighting, on a perfect summer day long ago, of two young lovers frolicking in the Charles River, the sun dappling the water and the wet rocks around them. That moment of purity and joy is proof, to Sy, of God, and the memory of that image is what he has returned to again and again. Danny has his doubts, but perhaps he wouldn’t be Jewish if he didn’t.
Jerry Ragovoy, who died last month, wrote “A Piece of My Heart” for Janis Joplin and “Time Is on My Side” for the Rolling Stones, channeling his Eastern European cantorial heritage to create soul classics