Some novels are valuable because they transcend time and place and some because they are mired in it. Gerald Green’s The Last Angry Man falls into the second category.
Propelled by flattering (for the most part) reviews, Book of the Month Club promotion, news that Columbia Pictures had purchased movie rights for $250,000 after Harry Cohn himself read the galley proofs, and “news,” conveyed by Louella Parsons, that Marlon Brando would be “a strong possibility for the leading role of an immigrant doctor who fights juvenile delinquency” (Louella had clearly not read those proofs), The Last Angry Man was box office from the moment it appeared in February 1957.
Through the winter and spring of that year, while Israel removed itself from Sinai, the Dodgers removed themselves from Brooklyn, the Brits exploded an H-bomb, and Ford polished up the Edsel, TLAM gave Peyton Place, Atlas Shrugged, and Mandingo a run for their money on the fiction best-seller list. And while The New York Times (publisher of two of those flattering-for-the-most-part reviews) did not see fit to place TLAM on its year-end register of “outstanding” fiction, the book remains in print (unlike 31 of the 64 books that made the Times list).
|1959 Pan paperback cover|
TLAM is the story of two men. Woodrow Wilson Thrasher is a clever, mid-thirtyish, Midwestern WASP, adrift without moral compass in zippy 1950s Manhattan and liable to lose his lucrative ad agency gig if he does not come up with a hit TV show for “G&T,” manufacturer of “Whiffo,” “Blanch,” and “Vita-life.” Samuel Abelman, M.D., is a 68-year-old Jewish GP in a deteriorated Brooklyn neighborhood who becomes the subject of a fanciful tabloid story that has him saving the life of a (Negro) woman who’s been gang-raped and dumped in front of his house by local (Negro) hoods. Thrasher reads the newspaper story and dreams up Americans USA, a program that will pay live tribute each week to an American hero, beginning with Abelman.
The doctor, as it turns out, is beset by an unyielding moral compass, and as a consequence is always angry—”the bastards won’t let you live” is his credo—or about to be angry, while his medical career has foundered on his unwillingness, as one of his few friends puts it, to “stop loving and hating your patients” and instead treat them “like customers.” Naturally, Thrasher falls for Abelman, seeing in him the essence of aggrieved integrity, a “doer” in a world gone over to “talkers.” Inspired, the younger man tries to heal his troubled marriage and entertains what he seems to believe are deep thoughts about life’s meaning.
At airtime, Abelman suffers a heart attack brought on by exertions on behalf of a dying and malevolent patient (leader of that gang) who’s been arrested for the attempted rape of Thrasher’s co-worker and latest mistress (a blonde with “hairless flanks”). In the end, Abelman dies, the show reaps publicity you couldn’t buy for a million bucks, Thrasher’s wife (also nicely flanked) declines to have a vengeful affair with a Columbia egghead, and Thrasher, it appears, is saved.
There are plenty of reasons not to admire this book, most having to do with the author’s failings of imagination and diligence. Stock images abound, and sometimes one wishes they abounded a bit more, as when Green goes out of his way to note that the mind of one of Thrasher’s coworkers “was like a peeled hard-boiled egg, smooth and slick and untroubled by dents or abrasions.” Most of the women (certainly the shiksas), are solid wood except along the flanks, while secondary male characters are, with few exceptions, from the discount bin: the wily Irish lush, the sadistic cheder teacher, sha-shtil Jews, a beneficent and softheaded old Brahmin, mouthy Italians, and depraved young black men. “You know dem fancy white gals! Dey wants it,” says Herman Quincy (“Josh the Dill”), the gangbanger for whom Abelman will sacrifice his life. Names themselves seem a peculiarly difficult matter for Green, who serves them up either overcooked or underdone: “Abelman” as opposed to “Cainman,” “Thrasher” for the lost and desperate WASP, and in a special category of ineptitude, “Josh the Dill,” which is impossible to think of without conjuring a deli counterman with flat feet, trussed hernia, and a get-outah-heah accent.
|1958 Pocket Books cover|
Yet the book has worked for readers (including me) for nearly 50 years, and there are good reasons why. Most importantly, Green delivers a classic story. Abelman may be Lear played by Herschel Bernardi, and Thrasher may be Tom Cruise in the role of Kent, but tales of broken and raging old men and the young men who pity and adore them are never out of fashion. Green also draws on a host of gluey American themes: vacuous suburbs, immigrant dreams, disintegrating cities, a threatening black underclass, rebels without causes, and venal mass media. He is also good on days-of-yore detail: the clamorous “puller-ins” in front of men’s clothing stores; the cry of “Go vay, it’s my next” in a doctor’s waiting room; the bare hanging bulb in the kitchen of Abelman’s childhood home, which no one is permitted to light between sunrise and sunset; and the “Cloverleafs,” a band of teen-aged Jewish Walden readers from the tenements who on Sunday afternoons set off to explore the city’s parks carrying hard-boiled eggs, onion rolls, honeycake, and bottles of milk in shoeboxes under their arms.
In a book clanky with the machinery of plotted pathos, the Cloverleafs are truly and naturally touching in their earnest, desperate efforts to transform themselves from greenhorns into real Americans. And TLAM, packing its own bulging shoebox of fears and projections, is similarly striking in its earnest, desperate efforts to turn one American Jew into the kind of man other Americans will love as though he were really one of their own, which means, according to the crude semiotics of 1950s anti-anti-Semitism, that Abelman must be powerfully muscled, eager to bust it up, allergic to compromise and pity, contemptuous of “the lousy professors,” able to grow corn in his backyard, and willing, in good Christological fashion, to lay down his life for “an ungrateful hoodlum, the least of men” (and a goy and shvartzer, to boot).
The muscles (and a nose “less Semitic than Amerindian”) come up on Thrasher’s first view of Abelman, who is standing in that robust corn patch, wearing a “workman’s shirt” through which the younger man somehow discerns “the deltoid and bicep muscles were enormous, the forearms were thick with tough sinews.” The purpose of these muscles (which did not come to Abelman naturally, of course; nor, as he tells Thrasher, “from reading poetry”) is to defend the Jews. “His whole family [my emphasis] was nothing but weaklings—the kind of people who give in to everything. So Sam had to defend them,” Abelman’s wife tells Thrasher. And defend the mishpokhe is what Green’s golem does in a lifetime’s worth of skirmishes, the dramatic peak of which is an epic playground battle with the anti-Semitic “Paddy Lynch” (no kidding), a semi-pro boxer whom a twenty-something Sam beats insensible while fellow Jews counsel restraint and cries of “sheeney” and “Rosenberg” rain down from the hostile crowd—out of which steps, at the end of the fight, “a Celtic ogre,” who says to the bloodied, victorious Jew, “Abelman, you’re a battler. We’ll be honored to be your opponents” in a basketball game.
* * *
For those of us who achieved sentience in the age of Malamud, Bellow, and Roth (or Elkin, Stern, and Ozick; or Goodman, Englander, and Spiegelman), it is difficult to remember (and perhaps acknowledge) that only 50 years ago famous Jewish-American novelists (and Jews in publishing houses and movie studios and on Broadway) were timorous about broaching the real conditions of Jewish life or about presenting leading Jewish characters who weren’t brave, strong, upright, big-tippers, and dog lovers.
And it wasn’t just Gerald Green and Leon Uris and Herman Wouk who assumed the burden of apologetics. Arthur Miller “turned away from Jews as material,” he wrote, because of concerns that a Jewish character’s ignoble behavior might fire up anti-Semitism. Saul Bellow wrote Dangling Man and never identified the Jewish protagonist as a Jew. Hollywood produced one ambitious movie about anti-Semitism, and it was 1947’s Gentleman’s Agreement, in which Gregory Peck played a virtuous gentile playing a Jew, because you couldn’t take too many chances with American sympathies.
And why would you? In the late 1950s in suburban Connecticut (where Green lived), lawyers regularly wrote restrictive covenants into real estate deeds, while in the Bronx and Brooklyn (where Green was raised) publicly traded banks red-lined Jewish neighborhoods. In the Adirondacks and in the eastern Catskills, top-notch resorts advertised “Applications from Hebrews not desired,” and Hebrews respected that lack of desire and did not apply.
Also business as usual was Philip Roth’s bright and decent father working without hope of promotion in insurance, and my bright and decent Uncle Sid working without hope of promotion in oil (though he hoped, he did hope), and Columbia (where Green was educated) locking the doors of the English department behind Lionel Trilling, and Jews who wanted to work where they’d be in the public eye first visiting the nearest courthouse and having “feld” or “witz” or “stein” chopped from their names. (Green, who began working in television in the 1950s, was born Greenberg.) “Did you forget at your peril the ancient grudge that might be fed if Mr. Woolf could catch you once upon the hip?” thinks the hero of By Love Possessed upon noting a Jewish lawyer’s “patient shrug” and “whispering humbleness.” The book shared space on the best-seller list with TLAM.
May K. Sweet, in a review of TLAM for the now defunct journal Books on Trial, complained that Green “never quite locates the source of the infection” that fuels Abelman’s rage. Miss Sweet may indeed not have felt the fevered ghosts brush by, but no Jew in 1957 could have missed the implications of “the bastards [who] won’t let you live” in Dachau or Darien.
The Holocaust itself gets little explicit attention in TLAM, which is not surprising, for the cataclysm was still a Jewish quandary in 1957—a source of anger, guilt, shame, and not much else. “The pathetic frailty of his family,” Abelman thinks. “They gave in, they surrendered without a fight.” And dealing with that “surrender” remained a problem for American Jews and their writers for some time. As late as 1966, Robert Alter wrote, “it gives one pause to note how rarely American Jewish fiction has attempted to come to terms…with the European catastrophe.”
It was Green, of course, who in 1978 authored an ambitious effort to come to terms: the teleplay (and then novel) Holocaust. Irving Howe offered a nasty fable about Tolstoy being approached to write the miniseries script: “The Russian writer turned pale and mumbled, ‘No, no, there are some things that even I cannot do. For what you want, you should turn to Gerald Green.'” Tolstoy was right. Holocaust became one of those clumsy melodramas—like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Roots or The Jungle that rightly offend people of literary, academic, or spiritual refinement but change the moral landscape anyway.
Few novels change anything, of course, and it’s a rare one, whether clumsy melodrama or year-end Times selection, that turns out to command any terrain but the one in which it was first planted. Nearly 50 years out, Gerald Green’s achievement in The Last Angry Man remains a story sufficiently compelling that the book is still bought and read. The book’s value, for anyone who cares about Jewish history, is that its pages are inadvertently but piquantly redolent of a place and time and of the anguish of our fathers who tried to live in them.