That title is no joke: Simon, a stylish guide to the world's Places and Pleasures, is a stylish but bitter and rueful guide...


BRONX PRIMITIVE: Portraits in a Childhood

That title is no joke: Simon, a stylish guide to the world's Places and Pleasures, is a stylish but bitter and rueful guide to her immigrant-Jewish childhood in the Bronx of the 1920s--which, despite some glowingly evoked sights and sounds, is seen here as more Tobacco Road than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Father emigrated first; Mother, with four-year-old Kaila and her baby brother, came after. So life at 2029 Lafontaine (a five-story tenement) would always be colored by the feeling that Father--the spoiled ""royal baby"" of his own family--resented the end to his brief, free fling in America. There was marital discord (""A divorce was as unthinkable as adultery or lipstick"")--though Kate came home one night, fearing they'd killed each other, only to find her father kneeling, cutting her laughing mother's toenails. (""Something, another branch in the twisted tree that shaded our lives, was going to keep us safe for a while."") And while Father was the chief villain--complaining, railing against Mother's permissiveness and melting-pot tolerance--Kate was confused by Mother's ""truly disgusting"" sense of humor, then nearly unhinged (throwing a knife at her kid brother) by a new pregnancy: ""I hated this swollen person who used to be as lively as jumping rope and never scared."" Worst of all, however, was pre-teen Kate's introduction to sex: glimpses of copulation on a tenement roof; a brief encounter with the dirty old man whose money had won over Kate's playmate Helen (""I didn't want anything here, not more cake, not the candy, no naked people, no bushes, no creepy, shaky hands""); a groping barber, a groping neighbor (at the movies); and near-rapes by visiting new-immigrant cousins (male and female), whose lecheries were known, Kate believes, to her father. (""This was my father and his Family, who obviously had the additional privilege of using me. . . . There I was to lie, a slice of fresh cornbread, a chicken leg, a snack before sleep."") Small wonder, then, that Kate tried to deny her blooming breasts, roping them down with ribbon till she bled. But she's last seen, after first menstruation, eager to take command of her body: ""I was ready for all of them and for Rudolph Valentino; to play, to tease, to amorously accept, to confidently reject."" So, despite the many incidental charms--Coney Island, teaching an immigrant lady to write her name, jumping rope, hitching onto the backs of trucks--this is a rough, almost clinical tale: the making of a Lolita. And those who insist on family memoirs being Pollyanna-sweet and flattering will not appreciate the considerable, disturbing achievement here.

Pub Date: May 1, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1982