Political novels gag on sentimentality; the best have none, being committed instead to a recognition of life's messily...



Political novels gag on sentimentality; the best have none, being committed instead to a recognition of life's messily complicated, perplexing fullness. And this labor-movement novel is as good as it is mostly because it takes neither illusion nor disillusion as grounds for pathos. Kriegel's main character, Barney Kadish, Odessaborn, knows his path even before coming to the Lower East Side and turning union organizer for cutters of silk linings: ""The way goyim go to their Bible and the old rabbis to their Talmud, that was how I went to Marx. . . [To] Ward off evil. Pray for forgiveness."" Among the cutters and pattern makers, of course, it is hardly the Finland Station, but Barney also knows that ""You learn to move one step at a time. Into the nothingness. Like a kid feeling how cold the water is with the big toe. Facts are the worker's poetry. A dollar raise here, a fifteen minute break there. Facts explain themselves."" And one of the facts for the early garment workers is that their union is gangster-led: Minschin and his goons--""the Hats""--run the show. In fact, during a Hat-instigated union-hall riot, Barney loses an eye, another young worker his life; and it becomes clear that the only way Minschin can be countered is by employing his tactics. So Barney and his circle--Callahan the ex-Wobblie, Gus Constantinou the Party member, Marty Altschuler, Lisa Grumbach--fight back: separately and spaced over time, they murder five of Minschin's men. The political and ethnic situations here, then, are hardly in tune with the sweet ""union label"" stereotype. Moreover, with Barney's unapologetic murderousness, the book slips into tricky and subtle moral territory: Barney the genuine hero--yet also the cool killer; Barney the loyal Communist Party member--even as Stalin cozies up to Hitler, kills millions; and Barney the ruin--ousted from union leadership on grounds of politics in the Fifties. The tragedy of true-believer politics, Kriegel suggests, is its terrible forwardness, the robbery of any possible past or resting place. And the book ends with Barney sick, living on pensions in New Mexico (a surprisingly lovely but very grey idyll), knowing full well that: ""A radical learns. First he learns that there is no God and then he learns there is no people and Finally he learns that there's nothing but the self he's already given to the cause."" Ruined truths are so much a part of this novel, in fact, that they frequently float, unmoored. (For instance, ""Sex is working past each of our needs into time"" comes out of the mouth of Barney's ex-wife--where it doesn't really belong.) But, with scope and a sharp style, with a determinedly un-retouched look at American Jewish labor history and a great sensitivity to contradiction, nonfiction-writer Kriegel (the fine Notes for the Two-Dollar Window, the unfortunate Of Men and Manhood) has made a special novel, perhaps the best of its darkly clear-eyed kind since Clancy Sigal's Going Away.

Pub Date: March 1, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1982